AUBURN, Ala. – Alfalfa was once a dominant forage in the Southeast. Several factors eliminated many productive alfalfa stands. Insects and the harsh environment found in the Southeast were a contributing factor in the decline in production of alfalfa. Recent work with alfalfa mixtures has revealed new opportunities for this forage.
Growing Alfalfa in Alabama
This legume contains high levels of energy and protein. Known as the queen of forages, it is high yielding and is one of the best quality forages for hay, silage and pasture. In recent years, researchers created new varieties of alfalfa. These varieties are better able to battle and grow in these conditions. Thanks to these new varieties, alfalfa is once again a desirable forage in Alabama.
Recent work with alfalfa has explored incorporating it into mixtures of bermudagrass. This mixture is desirable because alfalfa can help extend the forage growing season during the spring and fall months and improve the quality of harvested forage.
Dr. Kim Mullenix, an Alabama Extension animal science specialist, said that many believe that alfalfa cannot grow in the state.
“Because we saw a decline in production, there is the misconception that alfalfa does not grow in the Southeast,” Mullenix said. “Historically, alfalfa grew throughout the Southeast. Recently, development of improved varieties has resulted in great potential for incorporation of alfalfa into forage systems in the region.”
An alfalfa stand may generally last three to five years, possibly longer. Growing alfalfa along with warm-season perennials such as bermudagrass comes with some risk to it that producers must manage. When the alfalfa plays out, the warm-season perennials will reclaim its dominance in the stand.
Soil Requirements For Alfalfa
Mullenix said there are certain soil requirements that producers must maintain to grow alfalfa.
“The site must be well-drained to allow deep rooting. For establishment, soil pH levels should be greater than 6.0 for topsoil. Subsoil pH levels need to be greater than 5.5,” Mullenix said. “Annual soil tests are critical, and producers should use amendments to maintain a target pH of 6.5.”
Phosphorus and potassium are especially important nutrients when growing alfalfa. Its nutrient requirements may be high because when grown with grasses, there is competition for potassium.
Harvesting Alfalfa Mixtures for Hay
Mullenix said the guidelines on harvesting alfalfa-bermudagrass mixtures for hay require attention to the stage of alfalfa growth, harvest interval and cutting height.
“Harvest alfalfa during the early bloom stage (10 percent bloom) at the same height and interval as grazing,” Mullenix said. “When grown with bermudagrass, timing of harvest is critical early in the season, so warm-season perennials are not shaded out.”
Scout for Insects
Mullenix said to address any insect problems quickly, scout for insects in the alfalfa often, from spring through late fall.
“Alfalfa weevils and aphids may cause problems early,” Mullenix said. “Caterpillars, 3-cornered alfalfa hoppers and blister beetles are found later in the season.”
Mullenix recommends referring to the alfalfa IPM (Integrated Pest Management) guide to learn more. The guide is available as a free download on Alabama Extension online at www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/I/IPM-0978/.
For more information, visit Alabama Extension online or contact your county Extension office.