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8 Big Reasons to Graze Cattle on Alfalfa

Two words – grazing alfalfa – might as well say “bloat assured” to some cattle producers. Not so for University of Kentucky Extension forage specialist Garry Lacefield. He’s sometimes called Mr. Alfalfa, and he says his favorite crop isn’t known as the Queen of Forages for nothing. 

“More producers lose money from the fear of bloat than from bloat itself because it keeps them from efficiently using alfalfa in their pastures,” says Lacefield. 

Here are his eight reasons why alfalfa is his favorite legume for grazing, and why it should be your first choice.

1. Has Highest Yield Potential

Alfalfa hay that is properly fertilized and gets enough water can yield 5 tons to 7 tons per acre, with records of over 10 tons set in at least five states. Other legumes can’t do that.

2. Has Highest Quality Potential

Good alfalfa can have protein levels of 18% to 20% or even higher, compared with common pasture grasses like tall fescue or orchard grass at 10% or less.

3. Has Most Beef-Production Potential

The combination of the first two factors – high yield and high quality – can result in the highest beef cattle gains.  

“In research trials and on-farm demonstrations, we have seen total season gains of 500 pounds to 800 pounds per acre of alfalfa pastures and over 2 pounds per head per day,” says Lacefield. 

The record for his state is 1,354 pounds of beef per acre on alfalfa pasture.

4. Has Dry-Weather Tolerance

Alfalfa’s deep roots – 4 feet or more – make it more drought-tolerant than other legumes and grasses. When the grasses go dormant in the summer-grazing slump, alfalfa can be providing some quality forage.

5. Extends a Stand

Alfalfa production usually peaks in years two and three after seeding, then it drops off as the stand dies out. Alfalfa that started as a hayfield might be rejuvenated for an extra year or two by grazing it. 

“Grazing may reduce the grass and weed competition and allow the alfalfa to have a resurgence,” explains Lacefield. 

While young alfalfa stands might have 15 plants per square foot, research shows that you can get excellent beef gains while grazing a stand with as little as one plant per square foot.

6. Cuts Machinery Costs

“Over 40% of the cost of producing alfalfa hay is machinery and equipment,” says Lacefield. “In a total grazing system, this cost can be reduced or eliminated.”

7. Uses Less Fertilizer

Alfalfa, as a legume, extracts its own nitrogen from the air through its root nodules. It doesn’t need nitrogen fertilizer. It does need a pH of 6.5 to 7.0 and may need annual applications of potassium, phosphorus, and other minor nutrients. When you graze a field, over 80% of the nutrients ingested are put back on the soil through dung and urine. 

“Grazing means the annual fertilizer needs are lower than if you remove the nutrients as hay,” he says. 

Lacefield says soil tests should guide your pasture fertilization.

8. Has a good Rotational Response

There are some special requirements for getting the most from grazed alfalfa, notes Lacefield. 

For one, alfalfa produces at its best when it is rotationally grazed. Lacefield likes to graze for three to five days  followed by four to six weeks of rest. This nearly mimics a haying system of harvesting every 30 to 40 days, and it minimizes damage to newly developing shoots on alfalfa plants.

Lacefield says alfalfa plants are particularly vulnerable to hoof damage in wet and muddy conditions. He recommends a sacrifice paddock for such times to save the majority of paddocks from damage.

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