VETCH, in botany, the English name for Vicia saliva, also known as tare, a leguminous annual herb with trailing or climbing stems, compound leaves with five or six pairs of leaflets, reddish-purple flowers borne singly or in pairs in the leaf-axis, and a silky pod containing four to ten smooth seeds. The wild form, sometimes regarded as a distinct species, V. angustifolia, is common in dry soils. There are two races of the cultivated vetch, winter and spring vetches: the former, a hardy form, capable of enduring frost, has smoother, more cylindrical pods with smaller seeds than the summer variety, and gives less bulk of stem and leaves. The spring vetch is a more delicate plant and grows more rapidly and luxuriantly than the winter variety.
The name vetch is applied to other species of the genus Vicia. Vicia orobus, bitter vetch, and V. sylvatica, wood vetch, are British plants. Another British plant, Hippocrepis, is known as horseshoe vetch from the fact of its pod breaking into several horseshoe-shaped joints. Anthyttis vulneraria is kidney-vetch, a herb with heads of usually yellow flowers, found on dry banks. Astragalus is another genus of Leguminosae, and is known as milk-vetch.
Vetches are a very valuable forage crop. Being indigenous to Britain, and not fastidious in regard to soil, they can be cultivated successfully under a great diversity of circumstances, and are well adapted for poor soils. By combining the winter and spring varieties, and making several sowings of each in its season at intervals of two or three weeks, it is practicable to have them fit for use from May till October, and thus to carry out a system of soiling by means of vetches alone. But it is usually more expedient to use them in combination with grass and clover, beginning with the first cutting of the latter in May, taking the winter vetches in June, recurring to the Italian ryegrass or clover as the second cutting is ready, and afterwards bringing the spring vetches into use. Each crop can thus be used when in its best state for cattle food, and so as gratefully to vary their dietary.
Winter Vetches. There is no botanical difference between winter and spring vetches, and the seeds being identical in appearance, caution is required in purchasing seed to get it of the right sort. Seed grown in England is found the most suitable for sowing in Scotland, as it vegetates more quickly, and produces a more vigorous plant than that which is homegrown. As the great inducement to cultivate this crop is the obtaining of a supply of nutritious green food which shall be ready for use about the 1st of May, so as to fill up the gap which is apt to occur betwixt the root crops of the previous autumn and the ordinary summer food, whether for grazing or soiling, it is of the utmost importance to treat it in such a way that it may be ready for use by the time mentioned. To secure this, winter tares should be sown in August if possible, but always as soon as the land can be cleared of the preceding crop. They may yield a good crop though sown in October, but in this case will probably be very little in advance of early-sown spring vetches, and possess little, if any, advantage over them in any respect. The land on which they are sown should be dry and well sheltered, clean and in good heart, and be further enriched by farmyard manure. Not less than 3$ bushels of seed per acre should be sown, to which some think it beneficial to add half a bushel of wheat. Rye is frequently used for this purpose, but it gets reedy in the stems, and is rejected by the stock. Winter beans are better than either. The land having been ploughed rather deeply, and well harrowed, it is found advantageous to deposit the seed in rows, either by a drilling-machine or by ribbing. The latter is the best practice, and the ribs should be at least a foot apart and rather deep, that the roots may be well developed before top-growth takes place. As soon in spring as the state of the land and weather admits of it, the crop should be hoed betwixt the drills, a top-dressing at the rate of 40 bushels of soot or 2 cwt. of guano per acre applied by sowing broadcast, and the roller then used for the double purpose of smoothing the surface so as to admit of the free use of the scythe and of pressing down the plants which may have been loosened by frost. It is thus by early sowing, thick seeding and liberal manuring that this crop is to be forced to an early and abundant maturity. May and June are the months in which winter vetches are used to advantage. A second growth will be produced from the roots if the crop is allowed to stand; but it is much better practice to plough up the land as the crop is cleared, and to sow turnips upon it. After a full crop of vetches, land is usually in a good state for a succeeding crop. When the whole process has been well managed, the gross amount of cattle food yielded by a crop of winter vetches, and the turnip crop by which it is followed in the same summer, will be found considerably to exceed what could be obtained from the fullest crop of turnips alone, grown on similar soil, and with the same quantity of manure. It is useless to sow this crop where game abounds.
Spring vetches, if sown about the 1st of March, will be ready for use by the 1st of July, when the winter vetches are just cleared off. To obtain the full benefit of this crop, the land on which it is sown must be clean, and to keep it so a much fuller allowance of seed is required than is usually given in Scotland. When the crop is as thick set as it should be, the tendrils intertwine, and the ground is covered by a solid mass of herbage, under which no weed can live. To secure this, not less than 4 bushels of seed per acre should be used if sown broadcast, or 3 bushels if in drills. The latter plan, if followed by hoeing, is certainly the best; for if the weeds are kept in check until the crop is fairly established, they have no chance of getting up afterwards. With a thin crop of vetches, on the other hand, the land is so certain to get foul, that they should at once be ploughed down, and something else put in their place. As vetches are in the best state for use when the seeds begin to form in the pods, repeated sowings are made at intervals of three weeks, beginning by the end of February, or as early in March as the season admits, and continuing till May. The usual practice in Scotland has been to sow vetches on part of the oat break, once ploughed from lea. Sometimes this does very well, but a far better plan is to omit sowing clover and grass seeds on part of the land occupied by wheat or barley after a crop of turnips, and having ploughed that portion in the autumn to occupy it with vetches, putting them instead of " seeds " for one revolution of the course.
When vetches are grown on poor soils, the most profitable way of using them is by folding sheep upon them, a practice very suitable also for clays, upon which a root crop cannot safely be consumed in this way. A different course must, however, be adopted from that followed when turnips are so disposed of. When sheep are turned in upon a piece of tares, a large portion of the food is trodden down and wasted. Cutting the vetches and putting- them into racks does not much mend the matter, as much is still pulled out and wasted, and the manure unequally distributed over the land. To avoid those evils, hurdles with vertical spars, betwixt which the sheep can reach with head and neck, are now used. These are set close up to the growing crop along a considerable stretch, and shifted forward as the sheep eat up what is within their reach. This requires the constant attention of the shepherd, but the labour is repaid by the saving of the food, which being always fresh and clean, does the sheep more good. A modification of this plan is to use the same kind of hurdles, but instead of shifting them as. just described, to mow a swathe parallel to them, and fork this forward within reach of the sheep as required, repeating this as often during the day as is found necessary, and at night moving the sheep close up to the growing crop, so that they may lie for the next twenty-four hours on the space which has yielded food for the past day. During the night they have such pickings as have been left on the recently mown space and so much of the growing crop as they can get at through the spars. There is less labour by this last mode than the other, and having piactised it for many years, we know that it answers well. This folding upon vetches is suitable either for finishing off for market sheep that are in forward condition, or for recently weaned lambs, which, after five or six weeks' folding on this clean, nutritious herbage, are found to take on more readily to eat turnips, and to thrive better upon them, than if they had been kept upon the pastures all the autumn. Sheep folded upon vetches must have water always at command, otherwise they will not prosper.
As spring-sown vetches are in perfection at the season when pastures usually get dry and scanty, a common practice is to cart them on to grass land and spread them out in wisps, to be eaten by the sheep or cattle. It is, however, much better either to have them eaten by sheep where they grow, or to cart them to the homestead.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)