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The irony and the ecstasy of alfalfa in the South

Joe Bouton for Progressive Forage Published on 31 December 2020
Cutting alfalfa

The legendary grass breeder and agronomist Dr. Glenn Burton told attendees at the 1990 Southern Pasture and Forage Crop Improvement Conference a story that was related to him after he arrived in Tifton, Georgia, in 1936.

It can still be found in the conference’s proceedings. “A New York cattle buyer wired a Georgia buyer to send him 200 800-pound steers. The Georgia buyer wired back, ‘To fill your order, we are having to ship you 800 200-pound steers.’”

According to Burton’s narrative, early settlers practiced “free range” grazing where they fenced out the good land (to keep livestock out, not in) for planting crops, mainly cotton, and livestock could have everything else, usually low-quality native bunchgrasses, forbs and weedy vines. Not a recipe for great animal production, nutrition and health.

With the efforts of Burton and many other forage agronomists and breeders, persistent and long-lived perennial grasses such as bermudagrass, bahiagrass and tall fescue were developed and became the base forage systems that replaced the native grasses, forbs and vines – and, importantly, reduced water erosion. Although a big step up, these new grasses were variable in nutritive quality at times during their growing season, needed high levels of nitrogen fertilizer to drive their production or were even toxic (tall fescue).

Due to the stand persistence but variable nutritional value of these new grasses, cow-calf became the major livestock system, with the cow buffering the calf during poor nutrition times, resulting in a low return but salable product. Stocker production was confined mainly to cool-season annual grasses with very-limited-to-nil stocker production during the region’s long, warm growing season.

Fulfilling the need

What was needed was a high-quality, perennial forage crop that overcame the limitations of these grass systems. Enter alfalfa. Alfalfa was successfully grown as livestock feed for over 100 years in the Southern region, but its use was sporadic, cyclical and never achieved the acreage of the Midwest and far West. Why is that?

The reasons are complicated, unique to the South and, at times, ironic. Ironic because over that 100 years, alfalfa always rose to the top when agronomists and farmers listed forage crops that solve problems inherent in the perennial grass systems: seasonal distribution (alfalfa is productive for up to 300 days in the lower South), cost of expensive nitrogen fertilizer (alfalfa is a legume that fixes its own nitrogen) and low nutritive quality (alfalfa is the standard by which most forage crops are compared to for protein and energy).

Disadvantages of alfalfa

The main pushback with using alfalfa: It is an expensive crop to grow and takes a lot of timely management compared to the perennial grasses. Again, the past heavy water erosion on even the “fenced out” cropland made it poor from a soil fertility and soil structural standpoint. Therefore, it created even more low-quality land not suited for alfalfa without heavy investment in lime (Southern soils are inherently acidic and aluminum toxic) and fertilizer.

Alfalfa needs harvesting more times during the year (grasses two to three, alfalfa four to six times), not exactly hitting a Southern producer’s management “sweet spot.” High rainfall also makes any hay operation risky and demanding. Old Southern proverb: “It is always too wet when you are trying to cut it but too dry when you are trying to grow it.”

Alfalfa is also not a perennial in what most Southern producers understand the term to mean. Perennials are defined as surviving family generations instead of years; grass pastures that were planted by grandparents are still used today. The most persistent alfalfa stands do not fit that model even in the Midwest and far West.

What has changed?

Mainly, it was finding new ways to use alfalfa, even in minor acreages for short durations, to fit in with the South’s existing systems. Developing grazing-tolerant varieties more adaptive to Southern climate, pests and soils was an important step. Southern producers are fundamentally graziers. Weather is mild, and grazing seasons are long. Those who did not want to cut alfalfa so often, or worried about weather, now had the option of grazing. Adding herbicide resistance to varieties also overcame weed pressure problems so common in the region.

Bermudagrass is a primary Southern hay crop that forms a compatible mixture with alfalfa. With this mixture, there is no real risk to the bermudagrass persistence and only nutritive positives and reduced nitrogen fertilizer costs for the total forage produced. Ironically, it was Glenn Burton himself, Mr. Bermudagrass, who first demonstrated interplanting bermudagrass with alfalfa to be a viable forage system. Another irony: If the farmer was already following pH and fertility recommendations for his bermudagrass hayfields, interplanted alfalfa could successfully be grown and become just another bermudagrass management “tool.”

The alfalfa-bermudagrass system was rediscovered recently and is being emphasized by the young Southern forage extension specialists. These specialists are also demonstrating other ways for the crop to become part of any Southern forage system, for example, highly managed small acreages for supplemental or creep grazing. These young people are active and convincing in their arguments to producers, have implemented a state-to-state rotating outreach program for producers called “Alfalfa in the South” and have even been able to obtain national NIFA and SARE grants to support their research and outreach programs.

Alfalfas for wildlife management plots, either as pure stands or mixes with other forages, are now common. Southern dairymen who have planted corn silage over the years are being reminded of crop production fundamentals; corn crop after corn crop on the same land is detrimental to future productivity of that crop. As their fathers and grandfathers knew and practiced, alfalfa is still the best rotation crop within a dairy corn production system.

Therefore, going forward, alfalfa will not be used solely as pure stand, hay and silage in the South. It will become a part of the overall system and have unique and multiple uses that will increase acreage and seed sales. In fact, regional seed distributors report seed sales are increasing. One distributor reported that where in the past he ordered individual bags or occasionally a pallet of seed to fill all his customers’ alfalfa seed requests, he now orders tractor-trailer loads. On-farm demos combined with the latest extension education efforts are likewise continuing to have a positive effect. Simply stated, alfalfa is now used to solve problems even in small, short-term acreages. Ecstasy for any alfalfa supporter.

These recent trends may also explain another irony: Maybe alfalfa acreage looks low on USDA hay maps because so much of the recent plantings occur in bermudagrass pastures and wildlife plots and not as traditional alfalfa hayfields?

Final irony

Glenn Burton, before he came to Tifton, Georgia, conducted and published his Ph.D. research on alfalfa breeding at Rutgers University, with the breeding lines he developed eventually becoming the basis for the variety Atlantic. From many conversations with him over the years, he never lost his enthusiasm for the crop or pride in that variety.  end mark

PHOTO: Cutting alfalfa. Photo by Chris Geralds.

Joe Bouton is a professor emeritus with the University of Georgia. Email Joe Buton.