It’s not just for dairy cows and horses anymore. Alfalfa is making its way into beef cattle diets. And with proper management, a stand can deliver more bang for your buck.
“It’s very favorable on rumen fermentation,” says Tim Schnakenberg, University of Missouri Extension agronomist. “If you mix alfalfa in a diet with grasses like fescue or orchardgrass, it certainly takes care of a lot of the protein and energy needs, especially in lactating cows or weaning calves. It’s a great supplement that can be used many different ways.”
Southwest Missouri cattleman Byron Stine is a veteran alfalfa grower. He raises 120 acres of Roundup ReadyÒ alfalfa for use on his own operation and to market to other livestock and dairy cattle producers.
“We’ve been using it on our replacement heifers, and we use it for our cows and calves instead of supplementing them with something else,” Stine says.
Stine and his dad, Jim, have grown alfalfa for decades, raising it first when they had a dairy operation. Today, their beef cattle feed on alfalfa hay and graze the forage in the pasture.
“If you fertilize it right, you can get a lot of production out of it; and the hay that is produced, cattle feed well on it,” Stine says.
While alfalfa is a valuable feedstuff, it isn’t one of those forages you can plant and forget. Successful stands require forethought. Pasture fertility must be monitored. Insects must be managed.
“You have to think about getting the pH [in your soil] where it needs to be,” Schnakenberg says.
Bare ground establishment has worked best for the Stines, however Schnakenberg says no-till is a good option for some growers. “It retains moisture, holds back some weed germination and keeps the rocks in the ground and holds soil in place,” he says.
Insect management can be intense with alfalfa. “You have to spray every year for [alfalfa] weevils,” Stine says. “You have to know how to manage insects like weevil, grasshoppers, leaf hoppers and aphids.”
Stine’s most successful stands have been established mid-May. He especially appreciates the drought tolerance and productivity alfalfa brings to the table.
Typical stand life of alfalfa is five years, although Schnakenberg knows of stands that have been around as many as 10 or 12 years and as few as two.
Schnakenberg advises farmers to harvest the first cutting of alfalfa as haylage, storing it in a round bale silage bag. “Then, you don’t have to worry about leaf loss,” he says. “And, the quality is retained versus harvesting the forage.”
He recommends producers not harvest alfalfa for hay in the fall about 30 to 40 days before frost, to allow the forage to build root reserves before winter.
Producers should evaluate their own resources to determine if alfalfa’s benefits will be worth the extra management efforts required, Schnakenberg says.