The author is a professor emeritus with the University of Georgia in Athens and owner of Bouton Consulting Group LLC.
The first “Alfalfa Conference,” which was later to become the North American Alfalfa Improvement Conference, took place in Washington D.C. on January 13, 1930. Its chief purpose was “to discuss the problems that seem to be concerned with the decline in acreage of alfalfa in certain alfalfa districts, with special attention being given to the wilt problem; the relation of subsoil moisture to the yields of alfalfa; and to the causes of the decline in production in the Mississippi Delta and the black lands of Mississippi.”
It was the final part of that 1930 conference quote that caught my attention. I grew up in a Mississippi Delta cotton-farming family in the 1950s and 1960s — peak years for national alfalfa acreage, yet I never saw even one acre of alfalfa. However, my mother and my uncles told me stories about it from when they were children, as my grandparents grew a lot of alfalfa. It was grown to feed mules used for plowing cotton fields and for the family milk cows. When times were bad, young alfalfa leaves were added to the family’s salads. Further digging through the literature found similar stories in other Southern states. But then, alfalfa acreage went out as quickly as the confederacy itself.
For families like mine, tractors eliminated the need for mules and milk was easily obtained from grocery stores, so there was little need for my family to grow alfalfa by the time I was born. The domination of row-crop agriculture over animal agriculture is also an obvious cause. For example, there are reports of over 8 million acres of Georgia cotton grown north of Macon during that crop’s peak years. That is a lot of land — and a lot of erosion — with not much left over for other intensively managed crops like alfalfa.
“We call it ‘Co-Cola’ — just like God calls it.” Rev. C. Dean Taylor
The South is a region steeped in its own unique history, myth, and culture. For this article’s purpose, it includes the 13 states in the southeastern quadrant of the nation from Texas and Oklahoma straight across to the Atlantic Ocean. It is a warm, humid region in contrast to those states at similar latitudes.
State experiment station bulletins on successfully establishing and managing alfalfa are found throughout the region as far back as the early 1900s. Even as Southern animal agriculture grew in importance in the latter half of the 1900s, and alfalfa was successfully grown, acreages were cyclic and seldom high. The crop simply never achieved the primacy of the Midwest and West, including its geographic cousin, the dry Southwest.
The reasons why alfalfa acreage remains comparatively low are unique to the South. Southern producers define perennials as surviving generations instead of years. Tens of millions of perennial forage acreages (cultivated as opposed to native) are therefore planted to persistent grasses such as bermudagrass, tall fescue, and bahiagrass. In many cases, pastures of these grasses were established by grandparents and still used today. It would be easier to find Big Foot than alfalfa fields with that longevity.
Southern soils are inherently acidic and aluminum toxic, so required lime and fertilizer additions were seen as problems. When compared to grasses where simple nitrogen fertilization and the region’s mild climate and high rainfall produce abundant forage, alfalfa management was seen as too intensive and high risk. Periodic outbreaks of the alfalfa weevil were also devastating. Most importantly, Southern producers are mainly, if not exclusively, graziers, and alfalfa’s intolerance to grazing was a severe handicap.
In the end, national seed companies adopted a narrative that alfalfa acreage would not grow substantially, so there is little incentive to invest in promotion, marketing, or sales efforts. While understandable back then, this position is puzzling today because the region contains the majority of the nation’s beef herd, a substantial percentage of the nation’s dairy herd, and tens of millions of acres of pastures, hayfields, and cropland suitable for conversion to alfalfa. For these simple reasons alone, the South would seem an obvious target for alfalfa acreage and seed sales’ growth.
Southern research and outreach programs of the recent past, and continuing today, are changing the former negative alfalfa narrative for a new generation of producers. Individuals who can only be called mavens (Yiddish for “one who understands”) are now promoting a new narrative that alfalfa is easily grown, even in small acreages, and is the best crop to solve problems inherent in Southern perennial grass systems.
Alfalfa is being used as a “tool” to form compatible mixtures with bermudagrass, enhance the nutritive value of grass hay, and reduce nitrogen fertilizer costs without harming grass persistence, thereby supporting year-round, high-quality forage production. Winter weather in the region is mild, grazing seasons are long, and Southern producers are fundamentally graziers. Using adaptive, grazing-tolerant varieties, along with embracing new research on grazing management, was an important step.
Those who do not want to harvest alfalfa often or worry about unpredictable rainy weather now practice targeted grazing with grazing-tolerant varieties. Persistent weed problems were overcome by the glyphosate resistant trait. Alfalfa as a component of wildlife management plots are common. Dairy farmers who planted corn crop after corn crop for silage on the same land are seeing lost productivity and are finding that alfalfa is still the best rotation crop with corn.
Success of past marketing and sales efforts directed for the South such as the “Alfagraze — Hay It or Graze It” program, and more recently, the “GotBermudagrass?” initiative increased seed sales and acreage substantially and demonstrated what can be done. Recent “Alfalfa in the South” workshops are also doing much to promote alfalfa use and are well attended by motivated producers.
Harvested alfalfa acreage rose substantially after the 1930 Alfalfa Conference, reaching a peak in the 1950s and 1960s. Since that time, national acreage experienced a slow decline, losing almost half of that peak acreage. In fact, one of the main issues discussed during the 2022 World Alfalfa Congress held recently in San Diego was the continuing loss of U.S. alfalfa acreage, especially in the Western growing areas due to drought and water restrictions.
Can this national trend be reversed?
Alfalfa is slowly but surely becoming an important part of the South’s extensive forage-livestock systems by serving unique and multiple uses, even in small acreages, and is being promoted as such. All it needs now is a boost from the seed industry. The industry’s past reluctance was understandable but is now a self-fulfilling prophecy. It looks like a lost opportunity.
The answer to the posed question above and this article’s title is: “Yes, it can, but the alfalfa seed industry will need to work with the current Southern mavens to employ better marketing and to take some financial risks in order to develop a Southern alfalfa market.” The outcome of any company doing that will enhance its market share and bottom line.
This article appeared in the April-May 2023 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 20-21.
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