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Common Mistakes in Growing Alfalfa

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With high protein prices, many people are thinking about growing alfalfa, some for the first time ever. While alfalfa can be very profitable, there are some common mistakes that can take you from profitability to loss quickly. Following are some of the most common mistakes I see new alfalfa growers make. If you can avoid these mistakes, you have a good chance to be on the profit side of the ledger rather than in the hole.

Common Mistake Number 1: Site selection

Alfalfa does not do well on hilly ground, rocky ground, shallow soils, eroded soils, etc. Ride along the highway and look at the fields where alfalfa is thriving; it is almost always on a level, bottomland site that is free of potholes. If you don't have soil like this, don't plant alfalfa. If you decide to plant it anyway, don't expect much out of it.

Common Mistake Number 2: Acidic, infertile soils

Have soil test results in hand well before planting alfalfa. Make sure the soil pH is okay. This means a pH above 6.0 and, for a beginning stand, above 6.5. Lime is expensive. If you have an acidic soil and can't afford to lime, don't plant alfalfa. Alfalfa requires high amounts of P and K, both for crop growth and for replacement of what is removed in the hay. If you can't afford to fertilize a lot, don't plant alfalfa.

Common Mistake Number 3: Poor seedbed preparation and planting technique

Alfalfa requires a good seedbed. It can be planted no-till by an experienced producer, but probably not by someone not well acquainted with no-till. If you fall into the latter category, prepare a good seedbed that is firm, smooth and free of large clods. This will require several diskings, followed by a harrow or cultipacker. A good alfalfa seedbed is one that makes you want to bring friends to the field and say, "I did that." If your seedbed is not that good, don't plant alfalfa.

Use a drill to plant. Do not broadcast seed and till it in. If you can't use a drill, don't plant alfalfa.

Common Mistake Number 4: Plant it and forget it

Cattle love alfalfa. Unfortunately, they are not the only members of the animal kingdom with a taste for it. Insects like it as well. Armyworms can wipe out a new stand in a hurry. In the spring, aphids can suck the life out of a stand, and you won't know it until it's too late unless you get out in the field at least weekly and look. Alfalfa weevils can harvest more than you unless you scout them on a regular basis. Blister beetles can make your hay unsafe for horses.

Also, weeds can reduce yields and quality. The good news is that there are herbicides to control most weed problems in alfalfa. The bad news is, they're fairly expensive and you need to scout regularly for weeds to determine when and what to spray. To successfully grow alfalfa, you need to commit to a regular scouting program. If you don't have that commitment, don't plant alfalfa.

I've listed four of the most common mistakes I see new alfalfa producers make. I may have set a record for using the phrase, "If you can't do this or that, don't plant alfalfa," in a 600-word article. The purpose is not to discourage the serious producer from growing alfalfa. Year in and year out, it is the most profitable crop in our area of Oklahoma. However, it is an expensive crop to plant and take care of. Eliminating the mistakes listed above will greatly reduce the number of ulcers a producer is likely to develop.

Eddie Funderburg, Ed.D., previously served as a senior soils and crops consultant at Noble Research Institute, from 2000-2021. His bachelor’s degree is from Louisiana Tech University and his master’s degree and doctorate are from Louisiana State University. Before coming to Noble Research Institute, he worked at Mississippi State University and Louisiana State University as state extension soil specialist.