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‘Queen of forages’ has ancient roots

Dave Wilkins Published on 14 May 2012
Ever wonder where alfalfa came from? No, it didn’t originate from your seed dealer. The “queen of forages” actually has ancient roots dating back thousands of years.

From the beginnings of Western civilization, farmers have recognized that alfalfa provides excellent animal feed, improves the soil and increases the yields of other crops, said Michael Russelle, a soil scientist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The earliest written reference to alfalfa came from Turkey in 1,300 B.C., but there’s evidence it was around long before recorded history.

Charred seed from wild alfalfa plants has been identified in layers of ancient strata that date to about 6,000 B.C. in present-day Iran.

Alfalfa was important to the early Babylonian cultures, the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Aristotle and Aristophanes wrote about it.

Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought alfalfa to Central and South America in the 16th century, Russelle said.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planted alfalfa on their Virginia plantations using seed imported from Europe. It wasn’t a good fit. The crop the Founding Fathers called “Lucerne” was poorly adapted to the humid climate and poorly drained soils of Virginia.

“They were on pretty poor soils for alfalfa,” Russelle said in an interview. “They were in too humid an area for the germplasm they brought over.”

By contrast, alfalfa was an instant hit in the American West. The first alfalfa seed probably entered California from Chile sometime between 1847 and 1850, according to historians.

Originally promoted as “Chilean clover,” the new crop was an important component of early California farms. In just a few years, it spread north and eastward to Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Establishment of the crop in the Upper Midwest and Northeast owes much to Wendelin Grimm, a German farmer who emigrated to Minnesota in 1857.

Among Grimm’s few possessions upon arrival was a box of alfalfa seed. He tended his first crop carefully that first year, saving the seed that survived the winter.

He repeated the seed-saving process over the next 15 years, until he had a full crop of alfalfa capable of surviving Minnesota’s harsh winter conditions and shared some of his seed with neighbors.

Grimm’s work was “extremely important” in the development of early alfalfa varieties that were winter-hardy enough for the northeastern U.S., Russelle said.

“They started calling it Grimm alfalfa, but it wasn’t a breeding exercise so much as just allowing natural selection to occur,” he said.

Around the turn of the century, the USDA sent Niels Hansen, the agency’s first official plant explorer, to eastern Europe and central Asia to collect seed of winter-hardy, drought-resistant alfalfa.

“He collected a lot of alfalfa seed from those areas,” Russelle said. “That germplasm really helped because he brought back the falcata types – the yellow-flowered type of alfalfa – which is far more winter-hardy because it evolved in Siberia.”

Getting alfalfa to take root in the acidic, poorly drained soils and cold, wet climate of the Upper Midwest and Northeast proved to be quite a chore. Not so in the West.

“When alfalfa came into California and other Western states it was basically instantly successful. It was really well adapted to these conditions, especially if you had irrigation water,” said Dan Putnam, a forage extension specialist with the University of California at Davis.

From the beginning, there was strong demand for the new forage crop in the West, mainly because everyone seemed to have livestock. “They all had cows; they all had horses.

There was always this ready market, this ready use for alfalfa for grazing,” Putnam said.

In addition, the availability of river transportation and the new railroad lines built in the 1880s boosted the viability of alfalfa as a cash crop. “From the very earliest periods in the West, you find the development of markets for alfalfa,” Putnam said.

Agricultural writer Joseph E. Wing of Ohio was impressed with the alfalfa fields he saw during a trip to Utah in 1886. He later wrote a book titled “Alfalfa in America,” in which he discussed the challenges of growing the crop in the Midwest and how it seemed to thrive out West.

“(Wing) became kind of a proselytizer about alfalfa,” Putnam said. “He wrote this whole book about alfalfa and how great it was and how the yields could be done and how you could adapt it to (local) conditions.”

Two characteristics explain much of alfalfa’s success through the centuries: Its ability to re-grow and its palatability. “Alfalfa has this ability to re-grow, which is really important,” Putnam said.

“You can cut alfalfa any number of times and it will come back. That’s basically coming from its grazing tolerance in nature.”

Alfalfa is not only tolerant of grazing, it’s also very palatable, unlike many other plants. “That’s the reason alfalfa has always been prized as a forage,” Putnam said. “It doesn’t really have any anti-nutritional characteristics. Most plants have some alkaloids or bitter-tasting compounds, but alfalfa does not.”

A hundred years ago, farmers using horse-drawn equipment may have cut their alfalfa fields at 40-day to 50-day intervals. “A lot of it was practical,” Putnam said. “They didn’t have enough manpower to get around fields five times a year.”

Alfalfa fields back then would have had a lot more weeds and blooms than today’s fields. Farmers of that era didn’t have herbicides or pesticides, and most didn’t realize how important crop maturity was in terms of nutritional value.

“The cutting schedules would have been much longer than they are today,” Putnam said. “A lot of people didn’t understand the influence of cutting schedules on nutritional quality.”

Today’s alfalfa varieties are more uniform and much higher-yielding, Putnam said. “We’ve seen tremendous advances in yields of varieties and pest resistance. It’s been pretty impressive,” he said.

And that’s not even taking into account the new Roundup Ready varieties available to farmers today.

But that’s another story.  FG

References omitted due to space but available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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