When To Plant Alfalfa


Factors to Consider Before Planting Alfalfa

Before diving into the process of planting alfalfa, it’s important to consider a few factors that can significantly impact the success of your crop. By taking these factors into account and making informed decisions, you can create optimal conditions for your alfalfa plants to thrive. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Climate: Alfalfa is a cool-season crop that prefers moderate temperatures ranging between 60°F and 75°F (15°C – 24°C). It thrives in regions with a long growing season and adequate rainfall or irrigation.
  2. Soil Type: Alfalfa performs best in well-drained soils with a pH level between 6.5 and 7.5. Avoid heavy clay soils or excessively sandy soils that retain water or drain too quickly.
  3. Field Location: Select a field that receives ample sunlight throughout the day. Alfalfa requires at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight to maintain its vigor and productivity.
  4. Field History: If possible, avoid planting alfalfa in fields that have a history of disease or weed problems. Crop rotation with non-legume crops is recommended to minimize the risk of pathogens and weed pressure.
  5. Water Availability: Adequate water supply is crucial for alfalfa growth and development. Ensure that your field has a reliable water source or access to irrigation systems.
  6. Pest and Disease Pressure: Assess the prevalent pests and diseases in your region and select alfalfa varieties with resistance or tolerance to these issues. This will help reduce the need for excessive chemical inputs.
  7. Field Preparation: Prior to planting alfalfa, assess the fertility levels of the soil and address any nutrient deficiencies. Conduct soil tests and apply appropriate fertilizers to ensure optimal nutrient levels for plant growth.

By considering these factors and properly preparing the field, you can create favorable conditions for your alfalfa crop. Planning and preparation are essential for the successful establishment and long-term productivity of your alfalfa plants.

Best Time to Plant Alfalfa

The timing of planting is critical for the successful establishment of alfalfa crops. Planting the seeds at the optimal time ensures that the plants have enough time to establish a strong root system and develop before the onset of adverse weather conditions. Here are some guidelines to determine the best time to plant alfalfa:

1. Spring Planting: Spring is generally the ideal time to plant alfalfa. It is recommended to plant when soil temperatures reach a minimum of 50°F (10°C) for several consecutive days. This allows the seeds to germinate and the seedlings to establish before the summer heat.

2. Fall Planting: In regions with mild winters and adequate rainfall, fall planting can be an option. Planting alfalfa in the fall allows the plants to establish a good root system before going into dormancy. However, avoid fall planting if the winters are extremely cold or if the region experiences prolonged dry spells during winter.

3. Consider Your Location: The best planting time can vary depending on your geographical location. Consult with your local agricultural extension office or experienced farmers in your area to determine the ideal planting dates specific to your region.

It’s important to note that planting too early or too late can have negative implications on the crop’s success. Early planting may expose the young plants to frost damage, while late planting may not provide enough time for establishment before cold weather or summer heat sets in.

By selecting the appropriate time for planting, you can optimize the chances of successful establishment and maximize the productivity of your alfalfa crops. Remember to closely monitor weather conditions and soil temperatures to ensure you make the best decision for your particular location.

Ideal Soil Conditions for Alfalfa

The growth and productivity of alfalfa are heavily influenced by the soil conditions in which it is planted. To maximize the yield and quality of your alfalfa crop, it’s important to understand and create the ideal soil environment for its growth. Here are the key factors to consider when it comes to soil conditions:

1. Soil Drainage: Alfalfa thrives in well-drained soils. Poorly drained soils can lead to waterlogged conditions, which can suffocate the roots and result in stunted growth or even plant death. Ensure that the soil has good internal drainage to allow excess water to drain away quickly.

2. Soil Texture: The ideal soil for alfalfa is loamy or sandy loam. These soil types provide a good balance between water holding capacity and drainage. Avoid heavy clay soils as they can easily become compacted and hinder root development.

3. Soil pH: Alfalfa prefers a slightly alkaline soil with a pH range of 6.5 to 7.5. Acidic soils can hinder nutrient availability and adversely affect the growth and productivity of the plants. If the pH is too low, consider adding lime to raise the pH level.

4. Soil Fertility: Alfalfa is a nutrient-demanding crop, requiring adequate levels of essential macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Conduct a soil test to assess the nutrient levels and make necessary amendments to optimize the fertility of the soil before planting.

5. Organic Matter: A healthy level of organic matter in the soil is beneficial for alfalfa growth. Organic matter improves soil structure, water holding capacity, and nutrient availability. Incorporate organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, into the soil prior to planting.

6. Soil Compaction: Avoid planting alfalfa in compacted soils, as it restricts root penetration and affects plant growth. If the soil is compacted, consider subsoiling or tilling the field before planting to break up any compacted layers.

7. Soil Erosion: Alfalfa is effective in controlling soil erosion due to its deep-rooted nature. Planting alfalfa on slopes or erosion-prone areas can help stabilize the soil and prevent erosion. However, ensure proper erosion control measures are in place to protect seeded areas during the establishment phase.

By ensuring the soil meets these ideal conditions, you can provide a favorable environment for alfalfa growth and development. Healthy soil contributes to vigorous plants and higher yields, making it a crucial factor in the success of your alfalfa crop.

How to Prepare the Soil for Alfalfa Planting

The preparation of the soil plays a crucial role in the successful establishment and growth of alfalfa. Properly preparing the soil creates an optimal environment for seed germination, root development, and nutrient uptake. Here are the steps to follow when preparing the soil for alfalfa planting:

1. Soil Testing: Before planting, conduct a soil test to assess the nutrient content and pH level of the soil. This will help determine the necessary amendments to achieve the ideal soil conditions for alfalfa.

2. Weed Control: Clear the field of any existing weeds and vegetation. Weeds can compete with young alfalfa plants for nutrients, water, and sunlight. Consider using herbicides or mechanical methods, such as plowing or discing, to remove weeds effectively.

3. Deep Tillage: If the soil is compacted, perform deep tillage to break up any compacted layers. This will enhance root penetration and allow better water infiltration and drainage. Use equipment such as a subsoiler or deep ripper to loosen the subsoil.

4. Soil Amendments: Based on the soil test results, apply appropriate soil amendments to correct nutrient deficiencies and adjust pH levels. Add fertilizers, lime, or organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, to improve soil fertility and structure.

5. Leveling and Smoothing: Ensure the field is leveled and smooth for efficient water distribution and uniform plant emergence. Remove any large rocks, debris, or clumps of soil, and use a roller or land-leveling equipment to achieve a smooth seedbed.

6. Seedbed Preparation: Prepare a fine and firm seedbed to provide good seed-to-soil contact. Use a cultipacker or drag harrow to break up clumps and create a firm seedbed. Remove any remaining weeds or vegetation that may have emerged after initial weed control.

7. Seed Placement: Determine the appropriate seeding rate and method for your specific alfalfa variety. Follow the recommended guidelines for seed placement, whether it’s broadcasting, drilling, or using a precision planter. Ensure proper seed depth and spacing for optimal germination and establishment.

8. Irrigation: Before planting, ensure that the field has sufficient moisture. Irrigate the field if needed to moisten the soil to a suitable depth for seed germination. Proper irrigation after planting is crucial to ensure consistent moisture for seedling development.

By following these steps and taking the necessary measures to prepare the soil, you can create an optimal environment for successful alfalfa establishment. Proper soil preparation sets a solid foundation for healthy plant growth and lays the groundwork for a productive alfalfa crop.

Choosing the Right Alfalfa Variety

Choosing the right alfalfa variety is a critical step in ensuring the success of your crop. The variety you select should be well-suited to your specific growing conditions, climate, and intended purpose. Here are some factors to consider when choosing an alfalfa variety:

1. Adaptation: Different alfalfa varieties have varying levels of adaptation to specific climates and growing regions. Consider the average temperatures, annual rainfall, and length of the growing season in your area. Choose a variety that is known to perform well under those conditions.

2. Yield Potential: Look for varieties that have a proven track record of high yields. Consider the variety’s historical yield data, regional trials, and recommendations from local agricultural extension offices or seed suppliers. Balance the yield potential with other factors, such as disease resistance and persistence, to make an informed decision.

3. Pest and Disease Resistance: Alfalfa is susceptible to various pests and diseases. Evaluate the resistance or tolerance of different varieties to common pests and diseases in your region. Selecting varieties with built-in resistance can help minimize the need for chemical control methods and reduce the risk of crop loss.

4. Persistence: Evaluate the persistence or longevity of the alfalfa variety. Some varieties are known for their ability to maintain productivity over multiple years, while others may decline after a few years. Consider the intended lifespan of your alfalfa stand and choose a variety that aligns with your expectations.

5. Forage Quality: If your primary objective is to produce forage, pay attention to the quality characteristics of the alfalfa varieties. Look for varieties with high levels of protein, digestibility, and fiber content that are suitable for your livestock’s nutritional needs.

6. Grazing Tolerance: If you plan to graze your alfalfa, select varieties with good grazing tolerance. These varieties can withstand repeated grazing and have the ability to recover quickly after grazing pressure, ensuring a sustainable and productive grazing system.

7. Seed Availability: Ensure that the chosen variety is readily available from reputable seed suppliers. Availability can vary depending on the demand and region. It’s essential to have a reliable source of the specific variety you choose.

Take into account these factors and seek advice from local experts to make an informed decision when selecting an alfalfa variety. Remember that the right variety can significantly contribute to the success and productivity of your alfalfa crop.

Seed Selection and Preparation

When it comes to alfalfa production, selecting high-quality seeds and properly preparing them for planting is crucial for achieving a successful crop. Here are the key steps to follow for seed selection and preparation:

1. Seed Source: Choose reputable seed suppliers that provide certified or registered alfalfa seeds. This ensures the seeds are of high quality, free from impurities, and have been tested for germination rates and varietal purity.

2. Seed Purity: Check the seed label or certificate to verify the purity level of the seed. This indicates the percentage of pure alfalfa seeds in the mixture. Higher purity levels ensure that you are sowing more of the desired variety rather than other plant species or weed seeds.

3. Seed Germination: Evaluate the germination rate of the seeds. Look for seeds with high germination percentages to ensure a greater chance of successful establishment. Aim for seeds with a germination rate of 85% or higher.

4. Seed Coating: Consider seeds that have been coated with inoculants or other beneficial additives. Coating can enhance seedling vigor, protect against diseases, and provide essential nutrients, such as rhizobia bacteria for nitrogen fixation.

5. Pre-Planting Treatments: Some seeds may benefit from pre-planting treatments to improve germination or seedling establishment. Follow the instructions provided by the seed supplier regarding scarification, priming, or other treatments if deemed necessary.

6. Seed Storage: Store your alfalfa seeds properly to maintain their quality. Keep them in a cool, dry place in sealed containers to protect from moisture, heat, and pests. Avoid exposing the seeds to direct sunlight.

7. Seed Quality Testing: If you have any doubts about the seed quality, consider conducting a seed purity and germination test. This will help assess the viability and purity of the seeds before planting.

8. Seed Rate: Determine the appropriate seeding rate for the specific variety and field conditions. Follow the recommended guidelines regarding the number of seeds to sow per acre or square feet to ensure optimal plant density for maximum yield potential.

9. Seed Distribution: Use appropriate equipment for seed distribution to achieve uniform coverage. This can be done through broadcasting or using a precision planter. Ensure good seed-to-soil contact for better germination and establishment.

By carefully selecting high-quality seeds and taking the necessary steps for preparation, you can set a strong foundation for a successful and productive alfalfa crop.

Seeding Rates and Planting Methods for Alfalfa

Proper seeding rates and planting methods are essential for achieving optimal stand establishment and maximizing the productivity of your alfalfa crop. Here are the key factors to consider when determining seeding rates and selecting the appropriate planting method:

Seeding Rates:

The recommended seeding rates for alfalfa can vary depending on the region, variety, and intended use (hay production, grazing, or both). It is generally recommended to aim for 15 to 25 pounds of pure live seed (PLS) per acre. Higher seeding rates may be used for more challenging conditions or when aiming for quick, dense stands. Lower rates may be suitable for reseeding an existing stand or when using coated or primed seeds.

Planting Methods:

1. Broadcasting: Broadcasting involves spreading the seeds evenly over the prepared seedbed. This method is commonly used for large-scale planting or when access to precision equipment is limited. After broadcasting, use a light harrow or cultipacker to lightly cover the seeds with soil, ensuring good seed-to-soil contact.

2. Drilling: Drilling is a more precise method that involves using a seed drill or planter to place the seeds at a consistent depth and spacing. This method allows for better seed placement and seed-to-soil contact, resulting in improved germination and stand establishment. Adjust the drill settings to the recommended seeding depth and spacing for the specific variety and field conditions.

3. Hybrid Method: Some farmers opt for a combination of broadcasting and drilling. They may broadcast the bulk of the seeds for uniform coverage and then follow up with drilling to ensure proper seed placement and improved stand density.

It’s important to note that good soil moisture is crucial for successful germination and establishment, regardless of the planting method used. Adequate soil moisture at the time of planting promotes seed germination and helps with root development.

Consider the specific conditions and resources available to you when determining the best seeding rate and planting method for your alfalfa crop. Adjustments may be necessary based on soil fertility, moisture availability, seed quality, and equipment capabilities.

By carefully considering these factors and following the recommended seeding rates and planting methods, you can optimize the chances of successful establishment and promote a productive alfalfa stand.

Fertilization and Weed Control

Proper fertilization and efficacious weed control are integral components of successful alfalfa crop management. By implementing sound practices in these areas, you can promote healthy plant growth, maximize yields, and minimize competition from unwanted weeds. Here’s what you need to know:


1. Soil Testing: Conduct a soil test prior to planting alfalfa to determine the nutrient content and pH level of the soil. This information will guide your fertilization program, allowing you to provide the necessary nutrients in the right amounts.

2. Nitrogen (N) Fertility: Alfalfa is a legume that has the unique ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with specialized bacteria called rhizobia. Generally, alfalfa does not require additional nitrogen fertilizer as it can meet its nitrogen needs through symbiotic fixation. However, in low-nitrogen soils or during the establishment phase, a starter fertilizer or small amount of nitrogen can be beneficial.

3. Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) Fertility: Alfalfa has high phosphorus and potassium requirements. Apply fertilizer based on soil test recommendations to maintain optimal levels of these essential nutrients. Adequate phosphorus and potassium levels support root development, flowering, and overall plant health.

4. Micronutrients: Monitor micronutrient levels and supplement as needed. Zinc, boron, and molybdenum are important micronutrients for alfalfa growth and should be applied if deficiencies are identified.

Weed Control:

1. Cultural Practices: Implement good cultural practices to minimize weed pressure. Maintaining a dense stand of alfalfa through proper seeding rates, regular irrigation, and timely harvests can help suppress weed growth by limiting light penetration to the soil surface.

2. Preventative Measures: Incorporate weed management strategies such as proper crop rotation, timely planting, and establishment of a clean seedbed. These practices reduce the weed seed bank and prevent weed establishment.

3. Herbicide Use: Selective herbicides formulated for use in alfalfa can effectively control weeds without harming the alfalfa plants. Follow label instructions carefully, application rates, and timing to achieve maximum efficacy and avoid damage to the crop.

4. Mechanical Control: Mechanical methods such as mowing, cultivation, or hand-pulling can be used to manage weeds before they go to seed. These methods are particularly useful for controlling persistent or herbicide-resistant weeds.

It is crucial to monitor the field regularly throughout the growing season to identify and address weed issues promptly. Early detection and appropriate weed management practices will help maintain the integrity of the alfalfa stand and maximize forage quality and yield.

By implementing a well-rounded fertilization program that addresses nutrient needs and implementing effective weed control strategies, you can create an environment conducive to healthy alfalfa growth and optimize crop productivity.

Irrigation Requirements for Alfalfa

Proper irrigation is crucial for the successful growth and productivity of alfalfa. Adequate water supply ensures optimal plant health, nutrient uptake, and forage production. Understanding the irrigation requirements of alfalfa will help you make informed decisions about water management. Here are the key factors to consider for irrigation:

1. Water Needs:

Alfalfa has high water requirements compared to other crops. Depending on various factors such as temperature, plant growth stage, soil type, and evaporation rates, alfalfa typically requires approximately 20-30 inches of water per growing season. Regular watering ensures the plants receive enough moisture to support their growth and development.

2. Soil Moisture Monitoring:

Monitoring soil moisture is crucial to determine when and how much water to apply. Use moisture sensors or perform manual checks to assess soil moisture levels at different depths. Aim for a moist soil profile to encourage deep root development, but avoid overwatering, which can lead to waterlogging or nutrient leaching.

3. Irrigation Frequency:

The frequency of irrigation depends on several factors, including soil type, climate, and plant growth stage. In general, it is beneficial to apply water when approximately 50-75% of the available soil moisture has been depleted. This helps prevent plant stress and maintains optimal growth conditions.

4. Irrigation Method:

Common irrigation methods used for alfalfa include sprinkler irrigation and flood or furrow irrigation. Sprinkler irrigation can provide uniform water distribution, especially when using center pivots or linear move systems. Flood or furrow irrigation may be more suitable for smaller fields or areas with adequate water supply.

5. Time of Day:

To minimize water loss due to evaporation, it is best to irrigate during the early morning or late evening when temperatures are cooler and wind speeds are lower. This allows for better water penetration and absorption by the plants.

6. Tailoring Irrigation to Growth Stage:

During the establishment phase, alfalfa requires frequent, shallow irrigations to encourage root development. As the crop matures, switch to deeper, less frequent irrigations to promote deeper root growth. Be mindful of the plant’s water needs during each growth stage.

7. Rainfall Considerations:

Take into account natural rainfall when determining irrigation schedules. Adjust irrigation practices accordingly during periods of adequate rainfall to avoid overwatering.

By understanding the irrigation needs of alfalfa, you can optimize water usage and promote healthy growth. Regular monitoring, proper irrigation scheduling, and efficient water management practices will contribute to a successful alfalfa crop.

Monitoring and Managing Pests and Diseases

Effective monitoring and management of pests and diseases are essential to maintaining the health and productivity of alfalfa crops. By implementing proactive practices, you can identify potential issues early and take appropriate measures to mitigate their impact. Here are the key steps in monitoring and managing pests and diseases in alfalfa:

1. Regular Field Inspections:

Conduct regular field inspections to monitor the presence of pests and diseases. Look for visual symptoms such as insect damage, leaf discoloration, wilting, or signs of fungal or viral infections.

2. Integrated Pest Management (IPM):

Adopt an Integrated Pest Management approach, which focuses on using a combination of practices to manage pests effectively. This includes preventive measures, cultural practices, biological controls, and selective use of chemical controls when necessary.

3. Beneficial Insects:

Encourage the presence of beneficial insects that act as natural predators or parasites of pests. Examples include ladybugs, lacewings, and parasitic wasps. Preserving and enhancing biodiversity in the field can help maintain a healthy balance and reduce the need for chemical insecticides.

4. Scouting Programs:

Implement a regular scouting program to monitor insect populations and disease incidence. This involves periodically sampling plants and using identification resources or consulting experts to determine the severity of pest infestations or disease outbreaks.

5. Thresholds:

Establish action thresholds for pests and diseases based on the economic and agronomic impact. This allows you to make informed decisions about when control measures are necessary. Take into account factors such as the growth stage of the crop, population densities, and potential yield loss.

6. Cultural Practices:

Implement cultural practices that promote plant health and reduce the risk of pest and disease outbreaks. These practices include proper irrigation, crop rotation, timely harvests, and removal of crop debris, which can serve as a breeding ground for pests and pathogens.

7. Chemical Control:

If pest or disease pressures exceed the established thresholds, selective and judicious use of chemical controls may be necessary. Follow label instructions for proper application, timing, and dosage to minimize environmental impact and ensure effective control.

By actively monitoring and managing pests and diseases, you can minimize the potential for significant crop damage and maintain the health and productivity of your alfalfa crops. Implementing a comprehensive and integrated approach will help you achieve a sustainable and successful alfalfa production system.

Harvesting and Maintenance of Alfalfa Crops

Proper harvesting and maintenance practices are crucial for achieving optimal yield, quality, and persistence of alfalfa crops. By implementing effective management techniques, you can ensure long-term productivity and maximize the value of your forage. Here are key factors to consider:

1. Harvest Timing:

Timing is critical when harvesting alfalfa. Harvest based on the stage of maturity to balance yield and forage quality. Typically, the best time to harvest is during the early bloom stage, when plants have reached 10-25% bloom. Avoid waiting too long, as forage quality declines rapidly after this stage.

2. Cutting Frequency:

Multiple cuttings per growing season are common for alfalfa. Aim for three to five cuttings, depending on the length of the growing season in your region. Allow adequate regrowth time between cuts to promote root development and replenish carbohydrate reserves.

3. Cutting Height:

When mowing, maintain a cutting height of 2-3 inches. This ensures you leave enough stubble to promote regrowth and maintain a healthy stand. Cutting too close to the ground can damage the plant crowns and result in weakened regrowth.

4. Forage Handling:

Handle harvested alfalfa carefully to minimize leaf shatter and nutrient losses. Use appropriate equipment for baling, raking, and handling to maintain forage quality. Properly store harvested forage in a dry, well-ventilated area to prevent mold or spoilage.

5. Fertility Management:

Monitor soil fertility and apply appropriate fertilizers based on soil test results and guidelines. Adequate nutrient levels promote regrowth and maintain stand persistence. After each cutting, consider applying fertilizers to replenish nutrient reserves in the soil.

6. Weed Control:

Monitor fields regularly for weed growth and implement effective weed control measures. Weeds compete with alfalfa for nutrients, sunlight, and water, reducing forage quality and yields. Timely mowing, spot spraying, or other weed management practices can help manage weed populations effectively.

7. Stand Evaluation:

Periodically assess the health and productivity of your alfalfa stand. Look for signs of declining vigor, disease, or weed encroachment. If necessary, consider renovating the field by replanting or implementing practices such as overseeding or interseeding.

8. Pest and Disease Management:

Continue monitoring for pests and diseases throughout the growing season. Implement appropriate control measures if thresholds are exceeded. Early detection and prompt action help minimize damage and preserve the health of your alfalfa crops.

By implementing proper harvesting practices, maintaining stand health, and diligently managing potential issues, you can ensure the long-term productivity and profitability of your alfalfa crop. Making informed decisions and adapting management techniques to match changing conditions will contribute to a successful alfalfa production system.