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Bringing alfalfa back to the South

Jennifer Tucker, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, is researching the incorporation of alfalfa into bermudagrass systems to improve alfalfa’s production in the humid climate of Georgia. 

Alfalfa used to be a very popular crop in the South. However, due a combination of low nitrogen prices, insect infestations, and disease pressure, Tucker says many farmers chose to grow crops that were cheaper to manage, like corn. Alfalfa was pushed out of the mainstream in the 1970s. Although better management practices and protocols have been developed to overcome those challenges, the perception that it won’t grow in Georgia or the Deep South persists.

“But my colleagues in Extension, as well as industry partners, have proven it will work,” she says.

Tucker says that bermudagrass is a good partner for alfalfa for a few reasons. Bermudagrass is a warm-season grass and alfalfa is a cool-season grass, which when mixed create an ebb and flow of the systems. 

“You have times when alfalfa is dominant and times when bermudagrass is dominant,” says Tucker. “You take an area of land that’s only usually producing four months out of the year, but in our environment, we can get six to eight cuttings out of a season on that. It really enhances our warm-season dominant systems in the South.”

Besides encouraging alfalfa production, Tucker also hopes more land will be used to grow forage, which is a tool for carbon sequestration.

This research project, which is slated to run for the next five to six years, builds on Tucker’s previous research, “Alfalfa Forage System Management Strategies & Social Concepts for Expanding the Integration of Alfalfa into Southern Forage Livestock Operations.” The new project, “Alfalfa nutrient preservation, utilization, and cycling in sustainable Southeastern livestock systems,” focuses on environmental factors, like carbon cycling nutrients within the environmental systems, nutrient cycling within foraging animals, nutrient cycling within foraging systems, and incorporating the results of the previous study to strategically manage the system to optimize longevity. 

The study will take place at the Better Grazing Project at the University of Georgia. Tucker says anyone interested in seeing the system up close is welcome to visit the project’s demonstration area.

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