Pigeon peas have been cultivated for more than 3500 years, and they are pretty popular in much of the world. They are a common food grain in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and rank as the 6th most popular pulse (legume) in the world. But, pigeon peas haven’t gotten much traction in North America. Why the heck not? We think it might be time.
There are a lot of reasons pigeon peas are worthy of consideration to plant in a rotation, as a graze-able cover crop, or or as an annual forage crop with other crops or on its own. In the southern US, there’s a gap in forage production between late July and late November as most forages slump off. Pigeon peas may provide an answer to that gap, because they provide a lot of protein, and keep chugging along producing vegetative growth when other forages and crops like Bermuda grass, alfalfa, soybeans take the summer off.
Here are some more reasons why you might want to consider the pigeon pea:
Great for Your Soil
Of course, since it’s a legume, pigeon peas improve soil fertility. The leaves are produced over the life of the plant, and are 2% nitrogen. The leaves that fall to the ground provide another source of nitrogen to the soil.
But wait! There’s more! The pigeon pea has a deep-rooted system, with a strong taproot that can extend about 6′ into the soil. (Biodrilling!) The taproot develops in the first few months of growth, and it reduce runoff and help water infiltrate, break up compaction, and bring nutrients up from deeper soil. In some places is the pigeon pea used to stabilize hillsides from erosion, and provides good ground cover.
Pigeon Peas Aren’t Too Picky
Pigeon peas are pretty drought tolerant, and can grow with a heck of a lot less than the 65 cm annual rainfall that some may recommend (about 25 inches). The more rain they get, like just about anything, the more they grow. They do want moisture as they get started, though, so make sure to plant when it’s still raining if you’re somewhere with a dry season.
In addition to growing with little water, they also don’t need much in the way of soil fertility. They do better with a dose of phosphorus before planting. Otherwise, they do well in soils with limited nutrients. The pH preferred by pigeon peas ranges from 4.5-8.4, leaning a bit toward the acidic soil.
Plant production varies a lot by variety, with plants growing from three to ten feet tall (good if you have a herd of giraffes?).
Pigeon peas have their particularities, though. They don’t do well in cool soils, and they don’t like wet soils either. They really don’t like is cold weather. Frost will kill them, so they won’t over winter.
There are some pests that prey on pigeon peas, but mainly once they have produced pods. Root knot nematodes are known to be a problem to some varieties, but only a select few.
John Sloan, when he was working in Texas, tried seed drilling them into pasture, and didn’t have much luck. That’s disappointing, because they have high concentrations of tannins and are unappetizing to cattle until flowering (mature!), so that gives pigeon peas in pasture time to establish a stand before getting chomped down. Ideally, they’d be 12-24″ before you graze them. They should be planted as you would beans, when the risk of frost has passed. He will be trying them on his family’s farm in Illinois, though, and we hope he’ll share his results.
Between their tolerance of low fertility and drought, their indeterminate pea production (providing pods throughout their growing season, once they get started), the soil health benefits, their delectable and the 3-10′ of vegetation they produce, they are a pretty fascinating option. The other benefit is that you can eat them too. Pigeon peas are a big part of diets around the world. Here’s a recipe I’m hoping to try soon: Buttery Pigeon Pea Dal.
If you want to check out pigeon peas, there are plenty of varieties to choose from. There are perennials and annuals. The typical plant requires about 140 frost free days to get to maturity. But, there are varieties that grow and mature in 3-4 months as well. ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute of the Semi-Arid Tropics, has more than 100 varieties on hand, and they are working on developing more to take advantage of the characteristics of the pigeon pea.
The one problem, though, is where can you buy pigeon pea seed. Pigeon pea purchasing is problematic. We’ll be back with more information as we can get it.