Alfalfa cultivation is one of the most important crops in the United States due to its versatility, high palatability, good winter resistance and good drought tolerance, forage yield, as well as its high value of proteins and nutrients, especially for farms dedicated to breeding several types of livestock.
Currently, alfalfa is considered one of the forage crops par excellence in the United States so instead of decreasing, its production continues to grow and expand, not only in the northern and western states of the country that register the highest levels of growth and harvesting but also in southern regions where significant efforts have been made to promote new strategies to improve its management, increase its permanence for a longer period and significantly decrease the chances of fodder losses in terms of alfalfa cultivation.
The origin of alfalfa cultivation
Alfalfa is the oldest known hay and its use to feed farm animals and grazing dates back more than 1,500 years BC. The place of origin of this fodder can be attributed to the Caucasus, Turkestan, and the area of Mesopotamia, today known as Iran, and the Siberian region. Some archaeological studies and excavations were able to show that more than 3,300 years ago alfalfa was used to feed livestock.
The cultivation of alfalfa reached the Americas in 1519, through Mexico from Spain. A few years later, specifically in 1525, Hernán Cortez managed to introduce a large number of alfalfa seeds to the continent, while Francisco Pizarro introduced alfalfa into the area to feed his horses in 1530 during his process of conquest in Peru. Eleven years later, alfalfa managed to reach Chile with Pedro de Valdivia, and to the region of Argentina in the year 1561 thanks to Pedro del Castillo.
In the United States, the cultivation of alfalfa arrives in the year 1550 through the region of Mexico thanks to the missionaries who came from the state of Texas, and it was later distributed through Arizona, New Mexico and California where it expanded to the rest of the country managing to acquire the importance and high commercial value that it has today.
The economic relevance of alfalfa cultivation
Today, alfalfa cultivation is one of the most valuable crops, with a profit of approximately $9 billion a year only in the United States, ranking in fourth place after corn, soybeans, and wheat.
It is the most sown perennial forage crop in the world. According to figures by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) of the USDA, published in the webpage of the North American Alfalfa Improvement Conference, “there are 16.8 million acres of alfalfa cut for hay with an average yield of 3.45 tons per acre. The estimated value of alfalfa hay is $128.25 per ton. In 2016, alfalfa meal, cubes, and compressed hay were exported to other countries with a value of more than $820 million to the U.S. economy. Alfalfa is sometimes grown in mixtures with forage grasses and other legumes. The acreage of all hay harvested, including alfalfa, per year is 53.4 million with an estimated value of $17.5 billion (including haylage).”
The areas of the United States most dedicated to the cultivation of alfalfa seeds are those located in the northwest region such as California, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Washington. The production of alfalfa seeds has certain benefits and one of them, which many don’t know, is the production of honey from bees, which can be calculated at about $327.1 million in honey annually.
While alfalfa cultivation is also taking place in the southern United States, the truth is that this crop has faced certain difficulties for some years now, which have somehow decreased the crop area, mainly as a result of adverse environmental conditions and the arrival of some insects from other regions as a result of global warming.
However, being aware of this situation, agricultural experts continue to make efforts to optimize fodder and promote different and effective strategies that contribute to improving the current reality so that alfalfa cultivation remains sustainable in that area, especially to keep livestock feeding in optimal condition and improve milk production.
Alfalfa and soil protection
One of the main aspects to consider when growing alfalfa is that, by having a long main root system, it is necessary to have well-drained soils with a high level of fertility so that the seeds can thrive and grow optimally. For that purpose, performing tests on the soil to determine whether pH and fertility levels are appropriate is essential. If necessary, fertilization work should be carried out to improve ground conditions, so it is recommended to use elements such as boron and molybdenum, which are vital for the formation of nodules for the biological fixation of nitrogen.
Once this is done, you must choose the variety of alfalfa seed to be grown, not only to pick the one that best suits the conditions of the land so the seed can withstand the climatic conditions of the area but also define what its purpose will be, whether it’ll be merely for the production of fodder, grazing farm animals or with both purposes in mind.
One of the advantages of alfalfa cultivation is that it can be done through monoculture plantations or in other areas that include deposits with mixtures of other grasses such as Bermuda grass.
In the case of crops that develop in the southeast of the United States, interest in alfalfa and Bermuda grass systems has increased over the last years as a way to improve the quality of fodder in the area. By making this combination, farmers have realized that nitrogen inlet increases as well as the nutritional value, making them increasingly popular, compared to monocultures composed only of Bermuda grass or alfalfa alone.
Thanks to its versatility, alfalfa cultivation has adapted very well worldwide, is energy efficient and has a great source of biological fixation of nitrogen, so a single acre can set an estimated 300 pounds of nitrogen per year, contributing greatly to the decrease in the use of nitrogen fertilizers.
This nitrogen provided by the cultivation of alfalfa can help maintain the next harvest of corn for example, to such an extent that based on soil conditions, it can provide most of the nitrogen for that crop for at least two years.
The cultivation of alfalfa helps to optimize the structure of the soil, allows water to penetrate more effectively thanks to its deep root, which can reach the bottom of the soil making it more productive during the dry season, and keeps pests and other pathogenic elements such as corn borers away.
The cultivation of alfalfa also helps protect the soil, especially when it is located in the vicinity of slopes and watercourses, preventing loss of topsoil and nutrients necessary for the development of the plantation.
As a large percentage of alfalfa cultivation is intended for the feeding of livestock and other farm animals, it is crucial to carry out a good storage process to guarantee that the fodder maintains its quality level longer and the continuity in the expansion of livestock production at the same time.
Once the crop has been harvested, regulatory steps must be carefully followed to handle fodder correctly during transfer, filling, and subsequent storage, otherwise there is a risk of losing not only of the material but also the quality of that fodder.
One of the key aspects to reduce fodder losses, once alfalfa has been harvested, is knowing where the packaging or bags with the final material will be located.
It is important to place these silage bags or packaging plastics on a base suitable for any weather such as concrete, pavement or coated cobbling. This provides a regular surface area, aside from the advantage of having a location with the right conditions, which makes access much easier and prevents problems of drainage or poor arrangement of the packaging.
Regarding the location of silage bags or another plastic packaging, such as barrier plastic films, it is advisable to keep them away from environmental factors that may compromise the integrity of the material contained in them, e.g. snow, excessive sunlight or rain.
The place should be well–drained avoiding leachate and contaminated run–off, which can contaminate superficial and groundwaters. Packaging should be kept away from tree fences, weeds, and forests, leaving approximately a perimeter of three feet without vegetation to avoid attracting the attention of rodents or livestock that may prowl the area. Place a fence in the storage platform area to keep pets and small children away from the packaging.
Try to avoid handling equipment or tools that may cause punctures or tears near the packaging. This is fundamental, because when a bag is perforated or punctured, air enters the bag immediately, which can significantly compromise the integrity of the food. Continuous monitoring should be done, and if a hole is found, regardless of how small, it must be closed with tape or special patches to prevent oxygen from entering.
When should alfalfa be cut?
In addition to knowing how to store alfalfa after cultivation, it is necessary to know when it’s the right time to cut it. Ideally, fodder is collected at a specific time once maturity has been achieved, so you not only guarantee the quality of the food, but also the appropriate sugar levels for a good fermentation process. To minimize losses caused by the climate, crops must be cut off and stored within three days after the cut has been made.
According to the website Focus on Forage from Wisconsin, USA, “optimal relative forage quality (RFQ) is achieved when alfalfa is cut at or near 170 RFQ based on scissor clip or PEAQ measurements. Chop alfalfa at 3/8-inch theoretical length of cut (TLC) with 15-20% of the particles exceeding 1.5 inches long.”
How to fill silo bags?
The filling should be done quickly within three days for moisture to be uniform, so fodder quality increases within the storage site –in this case, the silage bags– and to reduce as much as possible the exposure to weather agents such as rain and air during the filling process.
The moisture levels of the alfalfa should be checked before storage, because if alfalfa is harvested and placed in silage bags when it’s wet, there is a risk of generating a prolonged fermentation, resulting in loss of dry matter causing the acid load to increase.
On the contrary, if alfalfa is stored when it’s too dry, it can hinder proper compaction, so trapped air will increase the heat production and breathing of the plant, allowing mould or mycotoxin problems to appear, thus generating aerobic instability. This is negative not only for fodder but also for feeding the animals that won’t receive the protein levels required for their development.
Currently, there’s machinery specialized in the automated filling of the bags, so you have to be very attentive to the movement that occurs during the process because a lot of fodder spreads on the ground and it is necessary to act quickly to collect and clean it to avoid its deterioration if it’s left on the ground.
Once the bag is full it should be sealed as soon as possible to prevent unnecessary air entry. Agricultural producers must adjust the packing machinery to guarantee that a compact fodder is made, because the higher the density of the fodder in a silo bag, the lower the amount of air that is infiltrated in case the bag is perforated or when the bag is opened to ventilate the fermentation gases.
What lies ahead for alfalfa cultivation?
There are several challenges that agricultural producers must face trying to incorporate alfalfa into fodder systems in the southern United States. However, there’s evident interest in continuing to collect valuable information to further improve the production of fodder and the sustainability of agricultural businesses.
Alfalfa is currently being used as a biofuel to generate electricity, bioremediation of soils with high nitrogen levels and as a factory for the production of industrial enzymes such as lignin peroxidase, alpha–amylase, cellulase and phytase.
Products you may be interested in for fodder storage:
Likewise, if you have any questions regarding the storage process or in terms of recommended agricultural plastics to maintain the quality of your fodder, don’t hesitate to contact us. You can write to us directly through the contact page, or to any of our experts whose contact information you will also find on this page.