FORAGE CROPS – ALFALFA
Alfalfa is a perennial crop and is usually planted in the spring or fall. Since the seeds are small (1-2 millimeters), they must be planted close to the surface of the soil. Between 15 and 25 pounds of seeds are planted per acre, which is about the size of a football field. There are approximately 200,000 alfalfa seeds per pound. After sprouting, the seedlings are relatively weak and must be protected from weeds. However, after developing a “crown,” the swollen top of the root, alfalfa plants are vigorous and can re-grow many times after the tops are cut for hay, between three and 11 times per year, depending on the area.
Roots can grow deeper than 15 feet. The purple alfalfa flowers are pollinated by bees, whose hives are placed next to fields that are for alfalfa seed production. Alfalfa is harvested with a swather, which cuts off the crop a few inches above the ground and places it in strips three to five feet wide where it dries in the sun. When the cut alfalfa is dry enough, the hay is raked and a baler is used to gather it up and compress it into a bale. Bales range in weight from 50 pounds to one ton and usually take the shape of small rectangles that can be managed by one person.
Large square or round bales are moved by tractors or “squeezes,” which are forklifts made specifically for hay. The hay-making process is highly mechanized, and most hay goes from field to barn without being touched by human hands. Alfalfa can also be made into silage by harvesting the forage and storing it in a silo while it is still moist, where it is preserved in a process called fermentation.
Alfalfa is sometimes grazed by sheep and cattle, which means the animals eat it while it is growing in the field. Other times alfalfa is made into small cubes or pellets for easy storage and delivery.
History – Remains of alfalfa more than 6,000 years old were found in Iran. The oldest writings about alfalfa are from Turkey, dating 1,300 B.C. Alfalfa was important to the early Babylonian cultures, and to the Persians, Greeks, and Romans because of its importance for feeding horses used in war. The eastern United States colonists, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, grew alfalfa on a few acres. However, it was not widely grown in this country until the California Gold Rush of 1849. Horses, beef and dairy cows were valuable, and everything was animal-powered.
From California, alfalfa spread eastward to Nevada, Utah, Kansas and Nebraska. Today, alfalfa is grown on 23 million acres from coast to coast and is the nation’s fourth largest acreage crop.
Varieties – Many alfalfa varieties are available to growers. Those that tolerate freezing are grown in the northern United States and Canada. Other varieties continue to grow during the winter months in areas such as Southern California and Arizona where growers may harvest 12 months of the year. Alfalfa breeders have developed many varieties of alfalfa that are highly resistant to diseases and insect pests, thereby reducing the need for pesticides.
Commodity Value – Among United States crops, alfalfa is third in value, after corn and soybeans. Its national value is more than $8 billion each year, not including the value of dairy or other animal products, which are the final products of alfalfa. In California, alfalfa is planted on more than 900,000 acres and has a value of approximately $1 billion annually. Alfalfa is an important rotation crop as it adds nitrogen to soil and improves soil structure for future crops. Nodules on alfalfa roots contain bacteria that take nitrogen gas from the air and convert it to nitrogen plants can use. This process is called nitrogen fixation. The financial value of this soil improvement is significant. Wildlife, including more than 130 bird species, use alfalfa fields for food and shelter. Top Producing Counties – California produces nine percent of the nation’s alfalfa hay, harvesting more than seven million tons annually. The leading counties in alfalfa hay production are Imperial, Kern, Tulare, Merced and Fresno.
Nutritional Value – Alfalfa is considered the premier forage of dairy cows. Thus, much of the milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, dried milk and ice cream we eat are connected to alfalfa. Dairy cows today are capable of producing approximately 60 percent more milk per cow than in 1970, and these cows need the nutrition that high quality alfalfa hay provides.
- A food source for dairy cows, beef cattle, sheep, horses and zoo animals.
- Legumes, such as alfalfa, convert atmospheric nitrogen into forms that plants can use.
- Facilitates soil conservation by reducing soil erosion.
- A wildlife habitat for hundreds of animals, including some endangered species.
- Lots of open space is created, which provides beauty.
- A habitat for more than 1,000 diverse species of insects, spiders and mites.
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