|By: Kent Kammermeyer|
So, you are a deer manager who won’t settle for second best? You want the cream of the crop, top of the line, the Cadillac of all deer forages? Do your friends call you meticulous, competitive, discriminating, particular, and obsessed? Do you not only keep up with the Joneses but always try to jump out ahead? How green is your thumb? Do you have reasonably fertile well-drained soils in reasonably-sized fields (greater than 3 acres)? Finally, do you or your farming neighbors have spraying and haying equipment and a market for high quality hay? If so, you might be a candidate for growing alfalfa for deer. Read on.
Alfalfa originated near Iran but related forms are found scattered over central Asia and into Siberia. It was first introduced into the eastern U.S. by colonists in 1736. Known as the “Queen of Forages,” alfalfa is the oldest and one of the most palatable and nutritious cultivated forage crops. It is rich in protein (20-30%, depending on growth stage), digestible energy (minimum 62%), vitamins, and minerals. Alfalfa has a very high yield potential (5 to 6 tons dry weight per acre per year).
Alfalfa is an herbaceous perennial legume that is erect- growing with many leafy stems arising from large crowns at the soil surface. A mature plant will have multiple stems which can reach the height of 24-36 inches tall. Stems are branched and slender and bear three leaflets (trifoliate) which are linear, oblong, or obovate (egg-shaped) and are toothed toward their tip. Flowers of most varieties grown in the south are normally some shade of purple. It is drought tolerant with a long taproot.
Area of Adaptation
Alfalfa is currently grown in most areas of the U.S. accounting for nearly 30 million acres of production, mostly for hay. It is adapted (depending on varieties used) to the entire U.S., however it can be difficult to grow in the Deep South. For best production, it requires a well drained soil with neutral pH (7.0 to 7.5) and good fertility (lots of Potash). It does not do well in poorly drained or acid soil or areas where adequate water is not available as rainfall or irrigation.
Alfalfa is used primarily as a hay crop although new grazing varieties are available that tolerate moderate grazing but must still be hayed as needed. With careful management and selection of varieties, it can be used successfully as a strong perennial (three to five years) food plot for deer. Stands have been known to persist for five years or more if adequately fertilized and cut at the proper stage of growth (see below).
Alfalfa Variety Characteristics
The older varieties of alfalfa could not withstand heavy continuous grazing such as that which would be expected from a high deer population grazing in small isolated fields (food plots). With the introduction of grazing tolerant varieties, this has changed and many small field plantings of alfalfa for deer have been successful in recent years. For deer food plots, besides selecting a variety that was developed to resist heavy grazing, varieties of alfalfa are available with specific characteristics bred for fall dormancy, winter hardiness, insect, and disease resistance. As a general rule, the greater the fall dormancy, the better the winter survival and overall persistence is going to be for any given variety. Weak winter hardiness can cause poor performance in spring (lower forage yield) and reduce the life of the stand by two or more years. However, dormant varieties have less vigor, less late summer and fall growth and lower forage yield potential than the less dormant types. Fall dormancy is important in the north but not generally in the south where winter low temperatures are more forgiving. Regardless of variety, it is important to time the last cutting of alfalfa hay so that there will be about six inches of re-growth before winter to establish a strong root system going into winter. Even so, if your deer graze it back to two or three inches in the fall, your stand is vulnerable to winter injury. A snow cover of six inches or more protects alfalfa plants from severe cold. During winters without snow cover, soil temperatures can fall below 15 degrees F, injuring or killing plants. Warm fall weather and midwinter thaws can cause alfalfa to break dormancy and have less resistance to freezing.
Hundreds of alfalfa varieties are rated on fall dormancy, winter survival and resistance to various diseases and insects. Go to www.alfalfa.org and click on Alfalfa Varieties 2012 Edition of ratings entitled “Winter Survival, Fall Dormancy & Pest Resistance Ratings for Alfalfa Varieties”. Better yet, consult your local county agricultural agent, seed dealer, or agronomist for grazing varieties that will do well in your area.
Soil Requirements and Seedbed Preparation
Alfalfa is a heavy user of plant nutrients. Careful pre-planning is very important in establishing alfalfa. A soil test is the first step in planning a fertility program. Applications of fertilizer and lime should be based on annual soil test results. A pH of 6.5-7.0 is necessary, over 7.0 is even better. Alfalfa does not tolerate acid soils (pH below 6.2), especially in the seedling stage. Adding a ton per acre of lime to the soil test recommendation ensures neutral pH and can add a year or more to the lime longevity before re-application is needed. Apply lime 6-12 months in advance and incorporate to 6 inches depth. Phosphorus (P) levels should be at 90 units per acre and Potassium (K) levels at 250 units per acre split over at least two applications per year. K should be applied after first cutting in spring and after last cutting in late summer to ensure a continuous supply to the plants.
Sulfur (if necessary), and Boron should be broadcast and incorporated prior to seeding. Nitrogen (N) application is not necessary but, if applied at planting, should not exceed 40 lbs/ac. Never apply N on established alfalfa stands.
Alfalfa requires a deep, loamy, permeable soil with an adequate moisture supply. It is sensitive to poor drainage and compacted soil conditions that restrict root growth. A good seedbed for alfalfa is finely pulverized, leveled, and firmed to the seedling depth and containing soil moisture from about 2 inches of rain (just prior to seeding). This will ensure good seed germination and plant establishment. When possible, use a pre-emergent incorporated grass herbicide such as Eptam. When incorporated at three to four inches deep it will keep most grass competition under control.
Planting Date and Seeding
Most alfalfa seeding in the U.S. occurs in August-October or March-May. Northern ranges usually mean sowing in August or May, while Southern plantings do better in September or March. As a general rule in spring, plant around the last average frost date for your area. Fall plantings tend to be more weed free and should be planted at least six weeks before historical freezing. For best seedling survival, drill or sow seeds approximately 1/4 inch deep. Cultipack soil after broadcasting alfalfa seed. A firm seedbed is critically important for establishing alfalfa and prevents heaving during freezing and thawing conditions. Seedling emergence is greatly reduced when seeds are planted deeper than ½ inch. Seeding rates are 15-20 lbs/ac for drilling and 25-30 lbs/ac when broadcasting. Mixing with small grains is not recommended because of competition in early seeding stage. Alfalfa can be mixed with clover (red or ladino) at reduced rates (5 lbs/ac clover to 15 lb/ac alfalfa) but this practice is not recommended, again because of competition of young seedlings with alfalfa generally being more sensitive than the clovers. All alfalfa seed should be inoculated immediately prior to seeding or purchased pre-inoculated. Inoculated seed should be kept reasonably cool until planted.
Insects, Diseases, and Weeds
More than 20 diseases can be serious problems for alfalfa in the U.S. These include fungal and bacterial wilts, anthracnose, leaf spots, crown and root rots, viruses, and nematodes. Resistant varieties are available for most of the diseases and nematodes listed (again, see www.alfalfa.org).
There are a number of insect pests on alfalfa in the U.S. These include the alfalfa weevil, clover leaf weevil, blister beetles, several aphids, potato leaf hoppers and the alfalfa plant bug. Depending upon severity of infestation, chemical control of insects may be necessary to maintain a healthy, productive stand.
Weeds can be a serious problem with alfalfa, especially in spring planted stands. In all plantings, preparing a smooth, firm, weed-free seedbed is essential. Use of pre-emergent chemicals (Eptam, see above) may be necessary. Watch for warm season weed competition in the spring and treat accordingly as needed with post-emergent selective chemicals. Chemical selection depends heavily on the offending weed species as each has different vulnerability to the selected chemical and some chemicals can seriously weaken alfalfa stands. Here again, seek advice from your local extension agent.
Each subsequent year, follow fresh soil test results in re-applying P and K and control weeds and insect pests such as the alfalfa weevil as needed. You will need to cut and remove hay (near 50% bloom stage and before most of new crown growth reaches bloom height) down to three inches tall as needed in late spring and summer when growth exceeds the deer herd’s ability to graze the growth down to three or four inches.
Roundup Ready Alfalfa
Several varieties of Roundup Ready Alfalfa from several different companies have recently been approved by USDA for sale and growth in the U.S. Roundup (glyphosate) is a broad-spectrum herbicide that kills a wide range of plants. It is not normally applied directly to crops. The RR technology incorporates genetic resistance to glyphosate into crop plants by inserting a single bacterial gene that modifies an enzyme essential for plant growth. Monsanto has used this technology to develop several RR crops (e.g., cotton, soybeans, and corn).
Roundup Ready technology will enable the development of new weed control strategies for alfalfa. Specifically, these new varieties will allow glyphosate (Roundup) to be applied over the top of the entire crop to control a wide spectrum of annual and perennial weeds commonly found in alfalfa without injuring alfalfa. Several of these weeds, especially perennials, are difficult to control using conventional herbicides or non-herbicide weed control methods. Although scientists at Monsanto and Forage Genetics International have developed the technology, RR alfalfa varieties will be marketed broadly by a wide range of seed companies. Important characteristics, such as genetic resistance to insects and diseases and yield potential, remain important criteria for selecting a variety. The RR trait enables a unique weed control program to be used in alfalfa planted for livestock. You should be prepared to spray for weeds multiple times during the growing season.153
Your seed dealer should have access to several RR varieties for both spring and fall planting seasons. Be prepared to pay a premium price for this seed but planting it will save many future applications of less effective herbicides! You may have to plan on spraying multiple times per year depending on weed species, weather and stand density. Read the label, there may be a limit on the number of sprayings per growing season.
Summary and Comments
Alfalfa is an excellent forage plant for deer. However, it is not a panacea or a miracle plant. It is dormant from November to April in most of the U.S. and is therefore a poor choice (by itself) for cool season forage. Small grains and clovers do better in this period. Alfalfa is expensive and somewhat difficult to establish. It requires careful management including strict attention to pH and fertility especially Potash, chemical spraying for insect or weed control, and removal of excess growth for hay, if possible. It is highly productive, palatable, high quality and persistent. Alfalfa stands, well managed, can be highly productive for five or more years.
Alfalfa would be a good choice for the serious deer manager with good farming equipment (including sprayers) and plenty of farming experience. Still, I would not recommend planting more than 50% of available food plot acres in alfalfa and would not plant it in fields smaller than three acres in size. Plant the remainder of your acreage in a bona fide cool season mixture such as clover/small grain mixes. Recommended alfalfa grazing varieties for livestock grazing or hay include: Alfagraze 300 RR (north and central) and Alfagraze 600 RR (central and south). Label forbids use of RR alfalfa in wildlife food plots. Recommended varieties for food plots are AmeriStand 201T (north and central) and Amerileaf 721 (central and south).
Monitor alfalfa stands closely and aggressively treat for weeds, insects or diseases as needed. Do not skimp on potassium fertilizer or lime! You may want to put your local Agricultural Extension agent on speed dial and invite him over for Sunday dinner at least twice per month from April through October as you carefully and methodically pick his brain for alfalfa maintenance tips and disease and insect identification and control! Still think you qualify as a potential alfalfa farmer? Go for it!