Although alfalfa most likely originated in the Near-East, it is a very important crop in many different countries around the world, with many farmers choosing this forage crop for their rotations. It has several uses beyond just being for human consumption: try it as a cover crop or for grazing your cattle on too.
In this quick beginners guide to growing alfalfa, we’ll take you through how to pick a variety, how to prepare the land for the alfalfa and also how to harvest it. But first and foremost, you should ensure that growing alfalfa is in the best interests of your farm. Check that it will fit in with your crop rotation cycle and look at whether the cost of alfalfa is less or more than the profit you’ll get in your local market. Alfalfa can be a lovely crop to grow but don’t forget that your farm is a business and take steps to ensure you’ll see a profit from your work.
Picking an Alfalfa Variety
When picking an alfalfa variety, you need to have several things in mind. First of all, take a look at what’s available: there’s no point researching and picking out a variety that’s perfect only to find that you can’t order it in time for the season.
Next, with your narrowed down list of available alfalfa varieties, take a look at any studies carried out to cross off any that don’t survive well in your climate. Look at how they handle the winter months and the soil type the specific varieties grow well in – look for a perfect match.
Alfalfa can be particularly vulnerable to root and stem disease, so if possible pick a variety of alfalfa that’s resistant to the common diseases in your area. If you can’t find an alfalfa variety that’s suited to your farm land in any way, take a step back and re-evaluate whether alfalfa is the right crop for you this season, or whether you might be better only growing it in the kinder summer months.
Preparing the Land for Alfalfa
Alfalfa might be the solution to your farm soil problems if you’re using it as a cover crop or for grazing, however if you’re growing alfalfa as a crop for harvest and profit, you’ll want to prepare the land for yield improvement to boosts profits to the maximum.
Start with a simple soil test to see what nutrients are lacking – do this a year or two before you seed the alfalfa, or at regular intervals in different spots in the field you’ve marked for the crop. Sulphur deficiency can be easily fixed the year of seeding simply by adding sulphur to the soil directly. For other nutrient deficiencies, you may find it better to try another field or a different crop if it can’t be fixed by fertiliser.
When it comes to harvesting the alfalfa, stick to roller type conditioners rather than the flail or impeller type conditioners you’d use on other grass type crops. It’s a small change but one that could mean quite a difference in yield harvested! Don’t believe us? Do a test on a small patch of alfalfa and see what the yield difference is.
When it comes to cutting down and managing alfalfa, which you’ll probably need to do if you’re planning to keep it growing for more than one year and aren’t grazing cattle on it, try to stick to 2 or 3 inches above the soil. This will leave plenty of stalk for regrowth and encourage greater yields for next year – unlike other grass type crops which are better cut at 4 inches and above.
While you may find that yields improve dramatically in year 2 when you cut the alfalfa down for harvest in year 1, you’d best not go in for a third year simply because at this point yields won’t improve that much. Furthermore, 2 years of alfalfa will be plenty for nourishing the soil and allowing the micro-organism economy to thrive. Year 3 is a time to switch up your rotation and plant another crop.
So that’s it! Our quick guide to growing alfalfa. If it’s your first time growing the crop we urge you to keep digging and do some more research. Talk with your fellow farmers and make notes of any tips and tricks they give you for growing this forage crop. It’s also a good idea to run a test patch on your land before diving right in by sowing an entire field of alfalfa. Follow this guide and plan carefully to see great alfalfa yield improvements for years to come. Good luck!