Alfalfa is the Queen of Forages

By Dan Peterson, Agronomist

Alfalfa Plot Harvester - Kansas 2020
This alfalfa plot harvester allows us to weigh fresh samples and subsample for quality.

Although there is growing interest in alternative forages such as annual grass/small grain blends with annual legumes and other forbs, alfalfa is still the “Queen” of forages (corn silage is “King”). There are many reasons for this, including alfalfa’s unparalleled animal nutrition profile. Good quality alfalfa cut at the right time will contain 20% or more of crude protein – the highest of the popular forage crops. This protein is highly soluble with a great balance of amino acids. According to Forage Complete, alfalfa contains “vitamins such as A, E, K, D, B1, C, B2, B12, U, B6 and amino acids such as folic acid, panthothanic acid, biotin, niacin and inocitole. In addition to these, alfalfa has high levels of calcium (Ca), potassium (K), phosphorus (P), sulfur (S), copper, chlorine, magnesium, iron, boron, manganese and cobalt”. Other benefits from alfalfa in the ruminant diet include:

  • Highly degradable protein, up to 74-79% according to some estimates.
  • Its digestibility reduces the amount of cud a cow must chew.
  • It increases rumen buffering.
  • It promotes faster digestion of digestible fiber.
  • Cows will often eat more alfalfa than grass because the fiber content is usually lower in well managed alfalfa.

More than Just Excellent Feed

Benefits of alfalfa in the crop rotation include its exceptional drought tolerance, high rates of soil nitrogen fixation, opportunities for summer manure applications, weed seedbank reduction, breaks the extended diapause corn rootworm cycle, and it significantly improves soil health. It is also a valuable cash crop, particularly in the great plains and Southwestern US. A significant amount of alfalfa is exported to Southeast Asia, Japan, and to the Mideast. It is now the third most valuable crop in the US, behind only corn and soybeans. Clearly alfalfa will remain a major crop in the U.S.

More Yield & Better Quality

From a fertility standpoint, alfalfa requires significant amounts of P, K, S, Ca, and micronutrients. An interesting and very useful characteristic of alfalfa that I discovered early in my research is that it absorbs foliar nutrition more efficiently than any other crop that I have experience with. In fact, it is so good at absorbing foliar nutrients that we can apply significantly higher rates of our nutrients, including  the sulfur products accesS and S-Calate, in foliar applications to alfalfa than in any other crop that I’m aware of.

In recent years AgroLiquid has been conducting significant research on alfalfa, including trials with four cooperators in south central Minnesota this past summer. Several AgroLiquid treatments were evaluated against dry fertilizer and as a foliar supplement to dry fertilizer. AgroLiquid treatments were applied to 6-8” regrowth between cuttings. At two locations the foliar treatments were applied to the 2nd and 3rd cuttings, with the 4th harvested to measure any carry-over effect. At the other two locations the treatments were applied to the 2nd and 4th cuttings. At three of the four locations the AgroLiquid treatments resulted in significant dry matter yield increases versus the dry fertilizer, while at the fourth location there was no significant yield difference across the treatments. One consistent effect of the AgroLiquid foliar treatments we observed in the Minnesota field trials was significantly faster growth between cuttings, reaching cut maturity (late bud) 3-4 days earlier than the dry fertilizer treatments. This is a very consistent effect from AgroLiquid foliar treatments in alfalfa across all years, cuttings, and locations.

82% Win Rate vs Dry Fertilizer

Since 2015, including the Minnesota locations in 2020, our overall cumulative field plot win rate in alfalfa across 88 comparisons versus competitive treatments is 82%, which in agronomy is a terrific result! While in Minnesota this past year and in the 2019 plots in western Kansas in 2019 we didn’t see any meaningful quality differences, in 2015-2018, we observed significant quality improvements in the AgroLiquid treated alfalfa over the dry fertilizer.

Bottom line – alfalfa growers should be aware that a well-thought-out crop nutrition management plan can significantly benefit yield performance and profitability. As always, if your crop is not reaching its full potential, contact your crop nutrition expert to help investigate opportunities. We’re here to help you develop a crop nutrition plan to meet your yield goals.