Southern Alfalfa

Hay Demand Encourages More Alfalfa Acres

A hay and Bermuda mix is a good fit for many operations in the South. (DTN/Progressive Farmer image by Jim Patrico)

Alfalfa is returning to parts of the Southeast, after many productive stands were lost in years past due to insect pressure and harsh growing environments. Forage researchers believe today's improved varieties give producers some new options worth considering.

It's notable that alfalfa, planted in forage mixtures with Bermuda grass, is working for some Southern operations today as both a grazing forage, and a hay crop. Leanne Dillard, Alabama Extension forage specialist, says the right field location and fertility program can make it work.

She adds it's important to inter-seed at the recommended time, rate and row spacing for the area. Alfalfa-Bermuda grass combinations work best in an established Bermuda grass field that is capable of tolerating some competition stress. New stands of Bermuda grass are not able to compete with alfalfa, and might not survive.

As to soil fertility, Dillard explains it is especially important soil and subsoil pH be maintained at a minimum of 6.5. In addition, the site must be well-drained to allow deep rooting. Phosphorus and potassium are important nutrients with alfalfa, and those nutritional requirements may be high. When grown with grasses, both forages will compete for the available potassium. This makes soil testing a must.

During raking and baling, Dillard notes it's important to limit leaf shatter on the alfalfa.

"If leaves are damaged, the quality of the alfalfa hay will be diminished," she says. "When harvesting, keep raking and tedding to a minimum."

In addition, she says a mower-conditioner can increase drying rates, which reduces time in the field and the need to excessively ted or rake.

She recommends growers in the region ted when hay is greater than 50% moisture, and rake when forage is around 40% moisture. Bale between 12% and 15% moisture.

"By combining Bermuda grass and alfalfa, we are able to increase the quality of forage compared to Bermuda grass alone," Dillard adds. "These mixtures also increase the number of hay cuttings from four to seven in an average year."

Alabama Extension animal science specialist, Kim Mullenix, notes alfalfa stands may last three to five years in the region, possibly longer.

What does adding alfalfa do for the nutritional quality of hay? Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia, Extension forage specialist says it can often add 30 points to the Relative Forage Quality (RFQ).

One example of an alfalfa developed for the South is Bulldog 505. A pasture mix of common bermudagrass and Bulldog 505 yielded haylage that averaged 120 to 180 RFQ. For comparison, Hancock notes typical samples of Bermuda grass hay sent to the state forage lab for testing, often average an RFQ of 95—that's about 56.5% total digestible nutrients or TDN.

The RFQ index is based on both TDN and fiber digestibility, as well as estimates of Dry Matter Intake. An RFQ score of 100 generally meets the nutritional needs of dry, mature cows, according to a report from the University of Florida.

To read more about how Alfalfa and Bermuda can work together in the South, see this earlier Progressive Farmer article, "Together is Better" by Becky Mills:…