By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden
Alfalfa is a cool-season perennial commonly grown for feeding livestock or as a cover crop and soil conditioner. Alfalfa is highly nutritious and a natural source of nitrogen. It’s ideal for improving the soil and providing erosion control. Alfalfa’s extensive root system nourishes both plants and soil. The alfalfa plant has been cultivated for generations and growing alfalfa in your garden is easy. Keep reading to learn more about how to grow alfalfa.
How to Grow Alfalfa Plant
Easily grown and propagated, alfalfa adapts well to nearly any garden, tolerating a wide range of growing conditions. It makes a good drought-resistant plant too, as it doesn’t like wet feet. In fact, too much moisture can lead to mold growth.
When growing alfalfa, choose an area with plenty of full sun. Also look for a well-draining area with a soil pH level between 6.8 and 7.5.
Prior to planting you should clean the area, work the soil, and remove any debris. Pure alfalfa seed can be purchased from most feed supply stores.
How to Plant Alfalfa
Those living in cooler climates can plant alfalfa in spring while milder regions should opt for fall planting. Since alfalfa roots quickly, it doesn’t require deep planting—only about a half inch (1 cm.) deep. Merely sprinkle the seeds evenly onto the soil and cover lightly with dirt. Use about ¼ pound of seeds per 25 square feet and space rows about 18 to 24 inches (46-61 cm.).
You should begin to see sprouts within seven to ten days. Once seedlings have reached about 6 to 12 inches (15-31 cm.), thin them as needed to avoid overcrowding issues.
Unless growing alfalfa as hay for livestock, allow it to grow until crops are ready to be planted or its purple blooms appear, at which time you can simply mow it down and till it into the soil or leave it. The alfalfa shoots will breakdown. This ‘green manure‘ will then fertilize the soil as well as stimulate microbial activity, thus aerating it too.
Harvesting Alfalfa Plant
If planting alfalfa for livestock, it will need to be harvested and cured prior to flowering (known as early-bloom stage). It becomes more difficult for these animals to digest once the plant matures. Harvesting in this early-bloom stage also ensures the most optimal nutrient percentages, which is often found in the plant’s leaves.
Do not cut alfalfa if rain is imminent, as this can damage the crop. Rainy weather can lead to issues with mold. Quality alfalfa hay should possess good green color and leafiness as well as a pleasant aroma and thin, pliable stems. Once harvested, the ground will need to be turned before next season’s planting takes place.
Alfalfa has few pest problems, however, the alfalfa weevil can cause serious damage. In addition, the stem nematode can infest and weaken stem buds.
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How Much Does It Cost to Plant an Acre of Alfalfa?
Alfalfa remains one of the primary forage crops in dairy and livestock production as well as an expensive crop to plant and manage. That is why it is very important to note the steps of planting alfalfa before you start.
Have it in mind that Alfalfa does well on well-drained soils rather than wet, heavy clay soils and requires good soil pH ranging from 6.5 to 7.0. If the soil pH is lower than 6.5, liming is required to increase it to its optimum level to enable better nutrient uptake. According to experts, each harvested dry matter ton of alfalfa removes approximately 11 pounds of P2O5 and 53 pounds of K2O.
For good and pure alfalfa stands, 18 to 20 pounds per acre should be planted. For mixed stands with grass, 15 to 16 pounds per acre is advisable. For broadcast seeding, seeding rates ought to be increased by 10 to 20 percent.
Also, for spring seeding, weed control is very necessary to limit seeding failure from severe weed pressure. For conventional planting, pre – emergence herbicide, such as Eptam or Chateau, can be incorporated into the soil before planting. But for no-till planting, only post-emergence herbicides, such as Raptor, Pursuit, or Select can be used.
According to reports, conventional tillage is a more acceptable planting method for flat and uniform fields than no-till planting, which is for rocky or steep slopes. Note that tillage can allow lime and fertilizer to be incorporated into the soil that promotes good stand establishment.
Always remember that having a firm seedbed is very pertinent to good seed – soil contact, and as a rule of thumb, an adult’s foot hill should be about ¼” to ½” deep. Either cultipacker type seeders or a grain drill can be used for a conventional tillage for planting alfalfa.
Estimated Cost of Planting an Acre of Alfalfa in the United States
Establishing good stands of alfalfa can be done by proper site selection, seeding rate, weed control and planting method. However, the cost of planting and maintaining an Acre of Alfalfa goes beyond these factors. Below is an estimated cost of planting and successfully harvesting Alfalfa in the United States.
Production Operating Costs
Labour, Equipment and Interest
Cash overhead more or less include various cash expenses paid out during the year that are assigned to the whole farm, not to a particular operation. Employee benefits, payroll taxes and workers’ compensation insurance are included in labour costs and not under cash overhead.
- Property Taxes: Most counties in the United States charge a base property tax rate of 1 per cent on the assessed value of the property. In some counties, special assessment districts exist and charge additional taxes on property including equipment, buildings, and improvements.
- Insurance: Insurance for farm investments varies depending on the assets included and the amount of coverage. Property insurance provides coverage for property loss and is charged at 0.834 per cent of the average value of the assets over their useful life. Liability insurance covers accidents on the farm and costs $638 for the entire farm.
- Office: Costs are estimated at $50 per acre and are not based on any specific information, except that there is a cost involved for bookkeeping, payroll, and tax preparation and communication systems.
- Land: Cropland with district water suitable for alfalfa production typically ranges in value from $15,000 to $25,000 per acre. Small farms (50 acres and less) tend to have higher land costs than farms over 50 acres. Cropland with district water rents for $300 per acre and rents may vary according to value or type of crop planted.
Costs to plant an acre of alfalfa are used to determine capital recovery expenses, depreciation, and interest on investment, during the production years. The establishment cost is the sum of cash costs for land preparation, planting, and cash overhead for establishing the alfalfa. Using the analysis above, the total cost for an alfalfa acre is estimated at $48,133 per acre, including the cost of land.
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Alfalfa, the queen of forage crops, has been grown since time immemorial by the various civilizations across the world, due to its high yield and nutrient content. Read more on how to grow and care for this popular pasture crop.
- Common names: Lucerne, Alfalfa
- Indian names: Lusan ghas (Hindi), Lusarne soppu(Kannada), Kudirai Masal(Tamil), Ashvabala (Sanskrit), Dureshta(Oriya)
- Botanical Name:Medicago sativa
- Varieties: Sand Lucerne, GM alfalfa
- Design Ideas: Alfalfa is suitable to be grown in pots or in garden beds.
Alfalfa, Medicago sativa is a perennial flowering plant in the pea family Fabaceae cultivated as a forage plant in many countries. It is a native plant to warmer temperate climates and has been cultivated as livestock fodder. Many essential nutrients are also found in Alfafa plants which are of great importance to human health. It helps in the detoxification of the urinary tract, purification of blood and liver, and in the maintenance of the alkalinity of the body.
PS: Alfalfa should be avoided by pregnant and lactating women.
- Sunlight: partial sun/shade – around 3-4 hours of morning/evening sunlight with some afternoon shade.
Alfalfa sprouts can be grown quickly in just 3 to 5 days indoors. It can be grown in a glass jar or a small tray. After the sprouts have grown from 3 to 5 inches, they are transplanted to the garden beds.
- Water: regularly- whenever top-soil turns dry. Keep the soil moist but not soggy, to avoid rot and fungal diseases due to over-watering.
- Sowing season: spring to summer
- Sowing method: Planting Alfalfa seeds requires a firm seedbed to improve seed contact with the soil. The seedbed should be free of weeds and kept moist. This helps seeds to retain moisture and prevents new roots from drying out. Alfalfa seeds can also be germinated indoors, to obtain best results.
Alfalfa should be kept free from weeds. The easiest way to achieve is with the use of a preplant herbicide. Fertilizer should be applied in accordance with soil test results. Lime, phosphorus and potash are the most important nutrients for a healthy alfalfa stand.
Diseases like bacterial wilt, downy mildew, common leaf spot, etc. which can turn leaflets into yellow and decaying roots in established plants leading to the death of the plants. Pests like aphids, whiteflies and alfalfa caterpillars encourage the growth of sooty mold on plants.
Alfalfa can be harvested between the late budding and early bloom stage which gives yields of high-quality feed without reducing the quality to a reduced stand. Alfalfa can be harvested twice without any detrimental effect on winter survival and baled as hay for direct feeding to animals.
- By seeds: Alfalfa can propagated by planting alfalfa seeds in well-prepared soil. A well-drained and firm seedbed allows seeds to retain moisture and prevents new roots from drying out. This seed bed should be free from weeds and kept moist. The seeds should be sown in rows spaced 45-60 cm apart and watered immediately while seedlings emerge.
- By Stem cuttings: Alfalfa can be easily propagated through semi-rigid stem-cuttings, about 6 inches tall. Remove all the leaves from the stem, except 2-3 on top. Soak the cuttings overnight and then plant them in a moist soil, about 2-3 inches deep. Place the cuttings in bright, filtered sunlight. Once new leaves start appearing along the cuttings in about 4-6 weeks, its time to transplant the cuttings.
Edited by Farhana Afreen for GreenMyLife.
Second and third mowing
During the summer, on the areas resting from the main garden crops, the northern and blue alfalfa, as already mentioned, can produce 2-3 crops. For the second and third time, mowing both of these varieties in the garden is also necessary during the budding period. Leaving alfalfa before flowering and ripening of seeds on the site is not worth it. Mowing this green manure contributes to the formation of many small roots in the soil. And this, in turn, contributes to the maximum improvement of the soil structure.
Of course, you can grow alfalfa on the site for only one year. However, experienced summer residents still believe that the maximum effect of this green manure can be obtained in two years of cultivation. If it is decided to leave alfalfa on the site for the second season, you still need to mow it a second and third time. Alfalfa is a perennial plant and will grow on the site next year even without self-sowing seeds.
How to Harvest Alfalfa Seeds
Alfalfa has been used as a food and herbal supplement for many centuries. Millions of people consume alfalfa each year, and many more feed it to their animals. Machines can harvest alfalfa seeds for you, but growing your own alfalfa and picking the seeds by hand is the simplest harvesting method.
Hold the string-line grass trimmer at a 45-degree angle to the ground. Hold down the trigger on your trimmer and cut the grass in your growing area to the ground. Take your time and cut away all of the exposed plant material that is visible above the surface of the dirt.
Clear away any trash or debris on the property. Load the refuse onto your truck and haul it away, leaving the entire growing area bare.
- Alfalfa has been used as a food and herbal supplement for many centuries.
- Hold down the trigger on your trimmer and cut the grass in your growing area to the ground.
Soak the growing area with the mixture of water and weed killer in your backpack sprayer. Cover the property with the mixture every day for a week to ensure complete saturation. Allow the ground to absorb the material and return to normal by leaving it alone for one month.
Spread handfuls of alfalfa seeds onto the bare ground. Cover the entire area with a thick coat of the seeds. Spread a thin layer of fertilizer pellets on top of the grass seeds. Mist the area with water from your hose, being careful not to disturb the seeds. Water your grass daily as it grows to maturity. Add more fertilizer pellets every two weeks to keep the plants well-fed and healthy.
- Soak the growing area with the mixture of water and weed killer in your backpack sprayer.
- Mist the area with water from your hose, being careful not to disturb the seeds.
Watch the alfalfa plants. Enter the growing area when the seed bunches are visible on the tops of the plant stalks. Grasp each stalk gently and pull upwards, allowing the seeds to fall into your hand. Place the seeds into a cloth sack. Store the sacks of alfalfa seeds in a cool, dark and dry place until you are ready to plant or sell them.
Wear work gloves and safety glasses when using tools and while picking up debris and trash.
Wear hearing protection along with your gloves and glasses when using a string-line grass trimmer.