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Alfalfa Is 'Almost Permanent' Pasture

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What would you think if I used the term "almost permanent" to describe alfalfa pasture? I can imagine you might wonder what in the world I was talking about, so let me explain...

Alfalfa is a warm-season perennial legume with stands that can be productive for several years. It is usually considered a hay crop, primarily because of its value as a high-quality forage. Alfalfa can be very productive with no applications of nitrogen needed to support the stand, as long as other soil amendments are sufficient. Alfalfa is best suited for highly productive fertile bottomland soils, usually loamy in texture, with a neutral pH (about 7.0). If alfalfa is planted on marginal sites, yields will be reduced and stand life will be decreased.

In recent years, grazing-type alfalfa varieties have been released, providing opportunities to livestock operations as a low-input, high-return forage, if managed properly. The grazing alfalfa varieties tend to have a steadier growth rate over the seasons and are typically as productive as most traditional hay varieties. Stands typically could last three to five years with good management. Unlike a hay situation, a small amount of grass that begins to emerge within the grazing pasture does not necessarily reduce the quality and productivity of the pasture. In fact, from a grazing perspective, 20 percent to 30 percent grasses in an alfalfa stand would still be considered acceptable and would therefore extend the stand life by perhaps another year or two over a haying program.

So, when do you consider taking the alfalfa out? Once the alfalfa decreases to about 60 percent of the stand, it would be time to renovate the pasture. In order to place alfalfa back on the same area as rapidly as possible, a couple of alternative forage crops need to be planted to break the allelopathic effect of the old alfalfa stand. That last season of the stand, graze out alfalfa by September and prepare land for wheat or small grains pasture. Use the pasture through spring and then convert to millet or a sorghum-sudan forage for summer pasture or hay, removing the summer pasture by mid-August in order to plant a grazing alfalfa variety in September. There will usually be enough residual nitrogen in the soil to make these two crops with no fertilizer needed. In essence, you would be managing an alfalfa stand for four to five years with one year of alternative forage production (with annuals) before returning to alfalfa again, hence the "almost" permanent pasture.

Bloat control is an important consideration. Bloat can be minimized by waiting until the alfalfa is mature to begin grazing. Other bloat control measures, such as blocks, may also be needed.

What are the economic ramifications? In direct comparisons for cow-calf and stocker cattle enterprises on bermudagrass versus grazing alfalfa, the enterprises imposed on the grazing alfalfa indicate greater returns per acre than the conventional bermudagrass systems. Keep in mind that the soils used in the comparisons are highly productive bottomland soils. If you would like copies of the budgets mailed to you, contact us at (580) 223-5810.

On soils suitable for alfalfa production, grazing alfalfa is a very good economic alternative to the conventional cattle management systems on permanent or "almost permanent" summer pasture.

Hugh Aljoe serves as the director of producer relations (consultation and ranch management) and a pasture and range consultant. He has been associated with Noble Research Institute since 1995. Prior to coming to Noble, he managed a 3,000-acre 1,500-head cattle operation in Texas. Hugh received his master’s degree in range science from Texas A&M University with emphasis in grazing management.