Alfalfa offers excellent opportunities as a grazing crop, said Garry Lacefield, University of Kentucky forage specialist, at the National Alfalfa Symposium last month.

Beef and dairy cattle that graze alfalfa perform well on it, added Lacefield, citing research studies as proof.

“Alfalfa as a grazing crop can produce anywhere from 400 to 1,300 lbs/acre beef gains. In Kentucky a number of years ago, we produced 1,354 lbs of beef on an acre of alfalfa with a small percentage of orchardgrass without any irrigation or grain,” he said of one study.

Virginia work showed milk production increases from dairy cows grazing the forage. More than 15,000 lbs/cow of 4% milk were produced in 24 weeks without supplementation on some fairly low-producing cows, Lacefield maintained. Texas research showed lambs grazing alfalfa can produce 710 lbs/acre with average daily gains at 0.35 lb.

The crop is flexible in that it can be used in three ways – as haylage, as hay and for grazing. “I think grazing works best where we can work it in combination, where we can use a field on an as-needed basis,” he said.

Deep-rooted alfalfa produces dry matter in droughty summer months when other plants can’t, he said. In Kentucky, which was hard hit by drought the past several years, “alfalfa came out smelling like a rose. Some people grazed alfalfa for the first time when they found themselves in a massive drought and it was a matter of selling cattle or grazing a plant that was capable of making some growth during that summer period. Alfalfa was one of those plants,” Lacefield said. “Now we’ve got producers who are putting alfalfa in for the sole purpose of grazing.”

In one experiment, a stocker operator grazed cattle on alfalfa during the summer slump. During that 100-day grazing period, the stocking rate was 1.8 head/acre with an average daily gain of about 2.25 lbs. Alfalfa will provide four times more feed production in 100 days than endophyte-infected tall fescue does in a year, Lacefield added.

People are concerned that it costs too much to grow alfalfa for grazing. But a Nebraska grazing study on an acre of alfalfa’s value as a replacement feed showed it equaled 459 lbs of grain, 1,200 lbs of alfalfa hay or 5,000 lbs of corn silage. “Alfalfa as a grazing crop was the highest-profit crop in that scenario,” he said.

Grazing can also extend the productive life of an alfalfa stand, Lacefield said. For example, johnsongrass infestations in an alfalfa field can be controlled when continuously grazed. “So in that last year or two of a stand that’s not good enough for hay, it can still be quite good for a grazing environment.”

The fear of bloat, however, can keep some cattlemen from adopting alfalfa as a grazing crop. But Lacefield argued that more animal deaths are reported as bloat than actually happen. “We can keep bloat to an absolute minimum,” he said. “If we grow some grass with alfalfa, that certainly can reduce the incidence. However, I know some people who are now grazing pure stands of alfalfa. And we can feed bloat-preventing compounds and that bloat incidence will be almost nil.”

One way to prevent bloat is to not turn hungry animals onto fresh, lush alfalfa fields when the plants are wet with dew. Also, while he used to warn people not to graze immature alfalfa, some people are doing that successfully. Turning animals out on fresh crop during an abrupt change in weather can also bring about bloat. Lacefield added that Rumensin, used in dairy and beef diets, can “drastically” reduce bloat incidents.

Perceived fencing costs can keep some people from considering grazing alfalfa, but Lacefield said not a lot of fencing is actually needed. Animals can be trained to stay within bounds of electric wires and “in about a 10-minute time we can allocate a whole new field for that animal to graze.”

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