AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Alfalfa crops are once again returning to the Southeastern agriculture scene. Once a dominant forage, producers saw an elimination of many productive stands because of several factors, including insects and a harsh growing environment.
Researchers, working with improved varieties, incorporated these varieties into mixtures with bermudagrass. Now, these mixtures allow producers to grow alfalfa for both hay and pasture operations.
Dr. Kim Mullenix, an Alabama Extension animal science specialist, said 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 that producers must manage,” Mullenix said. “When the alfalfa plays out, the warm-season perennials will reclaim its dominance in the stand.”
Dr. Leanne Dillard, an Alabama Extension forage specialist, said there are some difficulties in growing these mixtures.
“The most difficult task in growing these mixtures is ensuring that the field location and soil fertility are appropriate for both forages,” Dillard said. “Interseeding at the recommended time, rate and row spacing is also a difficulty that producers face.”
Alfalfa-bermudagrass works best in an established bermudagrass field that is capable of some competition stress. New stands will not be able to compete with the alfalfa and will likely not survive.
Dillard, said there are several aspects of alfalfa which differ from traditional forages.
“Growing alfalfa requires more attention to soil fertility compared to traditional Alabama forages,” Dillard said. “This is especially important for soil and subsoil pH which need to be maintained at least 6.5.”
In order to grow alfalfa, the site must be well-drained to allow deep rooting. Phosphorus and potassium are especially important nutrients when growing this forage. Nutrient requirements may be high. When grown with grasses, both forages compete for available potassium.
Mullenix said annual soil tests are critical, and producers should use amendments to maintain a target pH of 6.5.
Harvesting Alfalfa Mixtures for Hay
Dillard said it is important to limit leaf shatter during the raking and baling process.
“If the leaves are damaged, the quality of the alfalfa hay will be diminished,” Dillard said. “When harvesting, keep raking and tedding to a minimum.”
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Many producers use a mower-conditioner when harvesting. Dillard said using a mower-conditioner can increase the drying rate, reducing the time in the field and the need to excessively ted or rake.
Growers should ted when the hay is greater than 50 percent moisture (typically the morning after cutting) and rake when the forage is approximately 40 percent moisture. Dillard said producers should bale before it is too dry for baling. She added that around 12 to 15 percent moisture content is best for baling.
“By combining bermudagrass and alfalfa, we are able to increase the quality of the forage compared to bermudagrass alone,” Dillard said. “These mixtures also increase the number of hay cuttings from four to seven in an average year.”