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Basics of Alfalfa: The Queen Forage Species

By Harold Willis

Alfalfa has been called the “queen of forages” because of its remarkable ability to produce high yields of nutritious, palatable forage under a wide range of soil and climatic conditions. (J. C. Burton, p. 229 in Alfalfa Science and Technology, 1972.)

Alfalfa and other forage crops are an important and vital part of the agriculture of the United States, especially in the high dairy areas of the Great Lakes region and the Northeast, as well as along the Pacific west coast. Forages are also important wherever livestock are fattened. In 1969, the total acreage harvested for hay and seed in the U. S. was 27.1 million acres, of which 26.6 million were used for alfalfa. Out of this, over 60% was grown in the Great Lakes region. (J. L. Bolton, B. P. Goplen, & H. Baenziger, p. 24 in Alfalfa Science and Technology, 1972.)

Kinds of Forages

Besides alfalfa, other forage species most often grown include red clover, sweetclover, birdsfoot trefoil, Ladino clover, white clover (all of those are legumes), plus smooth bromegrass, timo­thy, bluegrass, reed canarygrass, and orchardgrass (the latter five are grasses, in a different plant family than the legumes).

Other forage crops that are not grown as commonly or that are restricted to certain parts of the country include, among the legumes: al-sike clover, sour clover, crimson clover, lespedezas, vetches, soybeans, field peas, cowpeas, peanut vines, and kudzu; and among the grasses: fescues, redtop, meadow foxtail, sudangrass, Johnsongrass, sorghum and its hybrids, millet, proso, tall oatgrass, wheatgrasses, bluestems, grama grasses, buffalograss, switchgrass, lovegrass, ryegrasses, needle-grasses, Bahiagrass, Bermudagrass, carpetgrass, Dallisgrass, oats, barley, wheat, rye, and corn (maize).

Since alfalfa is by far the most widely grown forage species, this article will mainly deal with alfalfa, although most of the legume forages are about the same in their growth requirements. To simplify matters, we will briefly list the characteristics of the non-alfalfa forages first and then concentrate on alfalfa.


The plants in the legume family have the distinct ability to provide a home for a type of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, Rhizobium, in the swol­len nodules that can form on the legume’s roots. These bacteria live in a symbiotic relationship with the legume and are able to capture (fix) nitrogen gas from the air and change it into ammonia, which the legume uses to produce proteins. There are many varieties or strains of the bac­teria, and only certain ones can successfully form nodules on a certain species or variety of legume. Although the bacteria are generally com­mon in fertile soil (which has not been sterilized by toxic chemicals), it is best to plant seed that has been inoculated with the right strain of bacteria to insure successful nodule formation.

Most legume forages are perennial plants (they live more than one year), although some sweetclover and alfalfa varieties are annual (live one year). Most legumes are characterized by deep taproots and growth of several stems from a crown region near ground level. The stems grow and elongate at the tips, but when the crop is harvested or grazed, new stems grow from buds in the crown.

Birdsfoot trefoil. Long-lived perennial; moderate-yielding with good midseason growth and late maturity; fair drought-tolerance and gener­ally poor winter hardiness; does well on poor soils; tolerates continuous but not close grazing; difficult to establish. A related species is called big trefoil.

Red clover.

Red clover. Short-lived perennial (2 years in North) or annual (South); moderately high yielding with fair midseason growth; fair drought-tolerance and winter hardiness.

Sweetclover. Biennial (lives 2 years) or annual; high-yielding with only moderate top growth the first season and little late growth the second season in 2-year varieties; good drought-tolerance and winter hardiness; does well on poor soils; not very palatable to livestock be­cause of coumarin content; makes poor hay; does not tolerate close cutting or grazing.

White clover and Ladino clover. Rapid-growing perennial (Ladino is short-lived); low-yielding with early spring and poor midseason growth; poor drought-tolerance and good to moderate (Ladino) winter hardiness; tolerate continuous grazing.


Grasses are characterized by comparatively shallow, diffuse root systems (with many roots, but no main taproots). The growing points for leaves and seed stalks are at ground level, so cutting or grazing will not injure them. Most forage grasses are perennial, while many weedy grasses are annual, as are crop grains (oats, wheat, corn, etc.).

Bluegrass, Kentucky bluegrass. Long-lived cool season peren­nial; low-yielding with early spring and poor midseason growth; poor drought-tolerance and very good winter hardiness; tolerates continuous grazing.

Bromegrass, smooth bromegrass. Long-lived cool season perennial; high-yielding with moderate spring and fair midseason growth; moder­ately good drought-tolerance and very good winter hardiness; weakened by heavy grazing; difficult to establish.

Orchardgrass. Cool season perennial; high-yielding with early spring and moderate midseason growth; excellent drought-tolerance and fair winter hardiness; coarse and unpalatable at maturity.

Reed canarygrass. Cool season perennial; high-yielding with early spring and good midseason growth; very good drought-tolerance and very good winter hardiness; poor palatability at maturity; difficult to establish.

Tall fescue. Perennial; moderate-yielding; good drought-tolerance and fair winter hardiness; poor palatability in warm summer months; weakened by heavy grazing.

Timothy. Cool season perennial; moderate-yielding with poor mid­season growth; fair drought-tolerance and moderate winter hardiness; low palatability at maturity; weakened by heavy grazing and cutting.

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Alfalfa, the Queen

Long-lived perennial (except annual varie­ties); high-yielding with early spring and good midseason growth; good drought-tolerance, some varieties very winter hardy; cannot be grazed in seedling stage. What’s it all about?

Alfalfa is the oldest crop grown solely for forage. It is native to the mountainous regions of southwestern Asia, in the vicinity of Iran and the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia. It was grown in ancient times by the Arabians and Persians, and was then introduced into Europe and from there into Central and South America by the first Spanish explorers and settlers. Although grown to a small extent on the East Coast of the U. S. in the 1700s, alfalfa really succeeded in North America after seed was brought in the early 1840s by settlers sailing around Cape Horn to California. The name “alfalfa” comes from Arabic and means “best fodder.” It is often called lucerne in other parts of the world.

For anyone who feeds livestock the growing of high quality, healthful forages should be your number one concern. That is what will give the maximum production by your animals, as well as pro­moting their health and well-being. Also, high quality hay can be an excellent cash crop in many parts of the country.

Let’s see how you can do it.

Source: How to Grow Great Alfalfa