Rising alfalfa: fodder or backyard gasoline

Growing your own alfalfa is an easy and fun project. Alfalfa hay is great for livestock and you can graze in the fields all year round. Most of us are familiar with alfalfa sprouts, which are tasty and nutritious, but we rarely think of growing alfalfa as a catch crop or adding nutrients to the dirt, or as feed for cattle, horses and sheep.

The purple flowers of this plant are very much loved by pollinators, and alfalfa tea is popular with many people because of its high vitamin content. You don't need a lot of space to grow alfalfa although it depends on what you are growing it for as you will need a large field if you want to feed your farm animals.

This guide provides instructions on how to plant alfalfa, create the best growing conditions, and treat common pests and diseases. By the end of the article, you will be confident and excited about planting and harvesting your own alfalfa.

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Brief instructions for care

Growing alfalfa for hack-and-drop composting or raising livestock is easy! Source: KSRE

Common names alfalfa
Scientific name Medicago sativa
family Fabaceae
Height & Spread 2-3 ft tall, 2-3 ft wide
Bright Full sun
floor Sandy loam, silt loam, clay loam
water 1 inch per week
Pests & Diseases Weevils, aphids, bladder beetles, leaf spots, root and crown rot

Everything about alfalfa

Medicago sativa is also known as alfalfa but is commonly referred to as alfalfa. It is a perennial legume native to Southwest Asia but is now grown worldwide as a feed, soil improvement, and food source for pollinators. It works well as a catch crop and as a compost additive because it is nutrient-rich.

The option to sow your field with annual grasses has been shown to help control weeds and erosion, while also providing your animals with more digestible fiber during rotary grazing.

All parts are edible, although the leaves may taste bitter to humans as the plant ripens. The purple flowers are a pleasant addition to salads, and alfalfa sprouts are often grown for human consumption.

The reason for the high vitamin and mineral content of the alfalfa is that its taproot can get up to 6 meters deep and can absorb nutrients that other plants cannot reach. The plant grows erect up to 2 to 3 feet tall by 2-3 feet wide. The leaves have three leaflets (trifoliate leaves) with an oval / elongated shape and serrated tips. The leaves are smooth above and slightly hairy below. The flowers produced on grapes are usually light purple in color, although you may see white and yellow. Most of the seeds are held in spirally wrapped smooth pods, each containing 2-8 seeds.

Planting alfalfa

Alfalfa prefers cooler weather, so the best time of year to plant seeds is spring. If you live in a warmer climate, you would benefit from an autumn planting. Choose and prepare a spot in full sun. Remove dirt and work on the dirt after the last frost in spring. Alfalfa prefers well-drained soil with a neutral pH. If you grow it as a green manure, you can easily plant it in raised beds. However, larger garden areas are better suited for growing alfalfa.

Once the soil is ready, sow the seeds by sprinkling them over the dirt and covering them lightly with a rake; they germinate within 7 days. Alfalfa can also be propagated from cuttings if you have access to an existing field. Below we will discuss in more detail the steps for growing alfalfa from seeds and also growing from stem cuttings.


Purple alfalfa blossomLucerne flowers are really pretty! Source: Charos Pix

Let's take a closer look at the extra care required to grow alfalfa. Light, temperature, water and fertilizer are all important factors to consider in order for you to achieve a healthy yield.

Sun and temperature

Alfalfa needs direct sunlight, i.e. it needs at least 6-8 hours of sun per day for optimal growth. It thrives in USDA growth zones 2-9, so it tolerates a wide variety of environments from cooler temperatures to heat. Mature plants do better when the weather gets hot, which is why you'll want to plant them during the cooler season.

It can withstand light frost if you planted it in early spring or a little later in fall. Alfalfa tolerates the cold well, but the leaves and buds can be damaged by frost. Special protection from the cold is not required, as the alfalfa stands dormant in winter after the harvest when temperatures drop below 20 ° C.

Water and moisture

Give enough water to keep the soil moist but not muddy. Alfalfa is drought tolerant and prefers a dry soil surface over waterlogging, but grows best with a constant supply of moisture. Watering from the ground is ideal for preventing the leaves from getting wet, which will reduce the risk of fungal problems. If you water with sprinklers, do it in the morning so the leaves have time to dry during the heat of the day. In winter, when it is dormant, there is no need to water the alfalfa as it does not need additional moisture.


Alfalfa does not like growing on stony or eroded soils. It prefers well-drained loamy soil of silt, sand, and / or clay with a neutral pH range of approximately 6.6-7.0; If you have acidic soil, alfalfa won't thrive unless you neutralize the pH by adding lime.


To fertilize alfalfa, add extra nitrogen the first time you plant your alfalfa, or add organic matter (especially to coarse-grained soil). The addition of potassium and phosphorus during the growing season increases the yield, which is important when growing alfalfa hay for animals. Some research shows that if you fertilize before the plants rest, it will prevent winter withering. At the very least, do soil tests regularly to check nutrient levels as they may already have high levels of potassium or phosphorus.


Alfalfa does not need to be pruned in the same way as a rose bush. Once it blooms, you have the option to cut and fall. That means you cut the alfalfa and leave the cut stems and leaves on the ground to decompose. The fallen plant material is a great way to improve your soil if you don't want to use the cut alfalfa for other reasons (such as for cattle feed).


Growing alfalfa from seeds is the most common method as most farmers grow at least one acre. Prepare the soil in the spring when the danger of frost has passed. If you are using it for a cover crop, plant the alfalfa seeds in the fall. You can buy seeds inoculated with rhizobium bacteria, which help fix nitrogen in the soil.

Sow the seeds by sprinkling them on a well-prepared seed bed and then covering them lightly with soil with a rake. Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate, which takes 7-10 days. Dilute the alfalfa seedlings about six inches between each plant to allow air to circulate as they ripen.

Cuttings are an option if you have an existing bed that you want to expand or if you have a small area in which to grow alfalfa. Collect the cuttings in spring to give them time to root before the weather turns cold.

Choose healthy plants with a height of at least 15 cm and cut the stem close to the ground. Strip the lower leaves from the stem and leave at least 3 upper leaves. Soak the stem in water to rest overnight. The next day, place the bottom 1.5-2 inches of the stem in a shallow container filled with moist soil. Place each cut 3-4 inches apart. Provide plenty of light and keep the soil moist but not muddy. Roots will have formed within 6 weeks and they can be transplanted into the prepared garden area.


LuzernefeldA good sized alfalfa field can provide a surprising amount of fodder. Source: KSRE Photo

Alfalfa is not affected by many pests and diseases compared to other plants that home gardeners grow. However, it is good to know about potential problems so that you can deal with them quickly before too much damage is done.

Growing problems

Since alfalfa has a deep tap root, it is not advisable to grow where chemicals have been sprayed in the past 2 years. A neutral pH level of the soil is also important when growing healthy alfalfa, as it can withstand diseases and pests more easily and does not require a pesticide spray.


Alfalfa can harbor many insects, although most of them are useful. There are a few to watch out for that can be devastating and these include alfalfa weevils, aphids, and bladder beetles.

Aphids are a common pest well known to gardeners and there are more than one species that will feed on alfalfa. They are tiny, oval shaped, and can be light green, beige, yellow, or dark brown. Damage from these pests can lead to stunted growth, speckled, and / or curled leaves. Some varieties are resistant to aphids, and keeping your bed healthy can help fight an infestation naturally. Encourage beneficial pests such as ladybugs, lacewings, or predatory beetles to settle down to keep the aphid population down as well. Neem oil, applied in the late afternoon, once the pollinators have withdrawn, removes the aphids.

the Alfalfa weevil is light brown with a dark stripe on the back. Adults and larvae feed on the alfalfa leaves, which can delay the growth of the plant and reduce the overall yield. It is not recommended to use insecticides during the flowering period of alfalfa as they can kill pollinators when wet; Apply an organic option like pyrethrin in the late afternoon or early evening when the pollinators have withdrawn for the day. Harvest early to reduce damage and consider using natural predators of the weevil like parasitic wasps.

Bladder beetle does not affect the harvest itself, but if you are using alfalfa as a forage crop, it is good to know that if they eat this insect while grazing, they will be poisonous to horses. Bladder beetles are easy to spot because they are large, with elongated black bodies, broad heads, and long antennae. The beetles are attracted to locusts and flowering alfalfa. Chemical control won't help as their toxin is still present in the beetle bodies after they're dead. If found, it may be best to avoid using it as food.


The two most common diseases that affect alfalfa are leaf spot and crown rot. In general, it's a vigorous plant, but it's good to be aware of infections that could affect your harvest.

Ordinary leaf spot (Pseudopeziza medicaginis) is a fungal infection also known as alfalfa leaf spot disease. This mushroom prefers cool and humid conditions and acidic soils. You won't see this disease that often in the southern warmer states. If you live in an area that receives a lot of rain, the chances of this pathogen attack increasing dramatically.

There are some varieties of alfalfa that are more resistant to leaf spot disease, although there is no such thing as a fully resistant variety. Fungicides are not always effective. So if you spot this disease early on, it is best to harvest your crops before it spreads. Applying copper fungicide can slow the spread. Signs of leaf spots are circular brown spots on the leaves that start near the bottom of the plant and work their way up to the older leaves. These eventually shrink and fall off the plant.

The second most common disease is Root and crown rot caused by Phytophthora fungus. The fungi live in the soil and can spread to other plants through irrigation water. Infested plants eventually die, but the disease starts in the taproot and spreads upwards. The first signs are brown lesions on the tap root.

The best form of management is to create ideal conditions during the growing season. Plant alfalfa in well-drained soil, prevent soil compaction, overwatering and avoid harm to your crops from nematodes and other pests. Fortunately, there are strains that are resistant to this fungal infection.

frequently asked Questions

Alfalfa flowersAlfalfa flowers can be purple, pink, white, or even yellow. Source: el chego

Q: How long does it take to grow alfalfa?

A: Under the best of conditions, the first cut of alfalfa would be ready in about 40 days after the seeds germinate; if the alfalfa is at least 15 inches tall.

Q: Does alfalfa grow back every year?

A: Yes, alfalfa is a perennial and will grow back every year as long as it is properly cared for. Overall, it's an easy plant to grow.

Q: What month do you plant alfalfa?

A: Plant alfalfa after the threat of frost has passed in your area, usually in April or May. If you live in a warmer climate, plant alfalfa in the fall, September through November, as it is a cooler time of year. Very warm areas, which rarely drop below freezing, may be able to start a late winter harvest for mid-spring harvest if desired.

Q: How profitable is it to grow alfalfa?

A: It depends on the size of the area you want to grow and what you want to do with the alfalfa once you've grown it. A small garden plot wouldn't be an advantage, but with careful planning, you could benefit from at least an acre of high quality alfalfa hay.

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