Time for an Alfalfa Gut Check

Since 2005, there has been about a 30% drop off in harvested alfalfa acres for states that report both hay and haylage acres. Some states, such as California, have experienced a much larger drop (48%). It’s ironic that this is occurring when alfalfa’s value has never been higher.

The cause for the steady decline in alfalfa popularity can’t be pinned on one thing or entity. Lack of water in the West, larger dairy farms with a heavier reliance on corn silage, more profitable commodity alternatives that are supported by government programs, and the recent interest to substitute annual forages for alfalfa have all been cited among the reasons for fewer alfalfa acres.

Although the trendline for alfalfa is undeniable, there are also reasons for optimism and may be even more justification why things could or should change. Perhaps part of alfalfa’s problem is simply familiarity and the fact we have taken it and its benefits for granted. Alfalfa still remains the dominant perennial forage crop in many regions of the United States and ranks as the third or fourth most valuable crop grown in the U.S., only behind corn, soybean, and sometimes wheat.

Corn silage as a prominent feature in dairy rations is not going away. Yield and energy rule the day; plus, marketers get to sell seed every year. Fortunately, alfalfa makes a perfect complement for the annual crop. This was recently confirmed in some Miner Institute research that found alfalfa included in the dairy ration at 30% to 50% of the forage fed optimized overall cow performance.

Alfalfa’s agronomic and environmental benefits have always been undervalued and underappreciated. Perhaps the recent run of high fertilizer prices might bring greater attention to the legume’s ability to supply nitrogen. Currently, the value of the nitrogen supplied per acre by a terminated alfalfa crop is, in most cases, equal to or greater than the cost originally invested in top-end alfalfa seed.

Most of the alfalfa grown in the U.S. is found in the Western states. There’s no question that water availability is limiting this production and will continue to do so in the future.

In the Southeast U.S., alfalfa is finding a role as the comeback player. After years as a no-show, both researchers and producers are finding that alfalfa offers a good complement when seeded into warm-season perennial grass fields. In the Southeast, it appears that alfalfa acres are on the rise.

There’s no question that the alfalfa industry’s infrastructure has been downsized. That trend will continue, at least in the short-run, but alfalfa still generates billions of dollars of net revenues for growers while keeping tons of soil from eroding every year. Alfalfa also helps to sequester carbon in the soil. ~ excerpted from Mike Rankin’s article in Hay and Forage Grower