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What is Alfalfa?
Alfalfa is often described as the 'father of herbs' in the Middle East. It is defined as a flowering plant which is cultivated in most countries as an important forage crop. The crop is a seasonal legume crop that thrives between 3 and 12 years, depending upon the climate in which it is grown. Its roots are often deep inside the soil, sometimes stretching up to 4.5 meters and this feature makes it tolerant against droughts. It is because of this feature that it is also known as the 'queen of forages'

The plant is grown throughout the globe for its excellent forage property, making it an excellent form of animal feed for cattle, and other forms of livestock. It is one of the most nutritious crops, containing a varied range of sources like calcium, magnesium, beta-carotene, potassium, Vitamin A, vitamins B-12, C, D, E and K. Its property of auto-toxicity makes the crop fail to grow in the existing stands of alfalfa, and thus it is being recommended that it should be grown on a rotation basis with other crops.
History of Alfalfa
Alfalfa is by far the oldest crop grown for forage. If the records are to be believed, then alfalfa was first grown in southern part of Iran or in the countries east of the Mediterranean sea in South-Western Asia. In about 6000 BC, the charred seeds of wild alfalfa were found in the layers at Ali Kosh, in the present day Iran. Similar forms were also found present as wild plants in central Asian and Siberia.The crop was then spread to Greece and China through the Silk Road by 1st BC. Soon, it was being grown in Argentina in 1700s and in Australia and New Zealand in around 1800s.
Health Benefits of Alfalfa
Though primarily used as a fodder, alfalfa provides health benefits to humans as well. Some of these benefits are:
  • It helps in bringing down the cholesterol level in humans and greatly improves the cholesterol panel. Basically, the fibers and chemicals that are present in alfalfa stick to the cholesterol, thereby not staying in the blood
  • The presence of many important amino acids like lipase, amylase, etc. in alfalfa helps in an effective digestion of food, particularly in digesting the four class of food, namely, protein, starch, fat and sugar
  • Alfalfa contains Vitamin U, generally found in green vegetables, and is helpful in reducing peptic ulcer
  • The presence of chlorophyll acts as an effective barrier in restricting bacterial invasion as it acts as a stimulant on the growth of connective and granulation tissues.
Features of Alfalfa
The following features best describe the prominent characteristics of alfalfa:
  • It has the capacity to grow at a faster pace
  • Its roots are deeply entrenched in the soil, making it resilient against droughts
  • It is resistant to heat and cold
  • It is highly nutritious and digestible
  • It can be stored as hay, silage, pellets and cubes.
Categorization of Alfalfa
A wide variety of alfalfa is available in the market to help in the effective growth of the livestock. Alfalfa can be categorized into three main categories, namely:
  • Early Maturing: In early maturing stage, the alfalfa is used as hay because of its ability to grow rapidly during the spring time and there are chances that it may provide more and earlier regrowth than during the medium stage
  • Medium Maturing: In this category as well, it is primarily used in the form of hay as it is marginal on soil and is more hardy in winter as compared to the early maturing category
  • Creeping Rooted: In this category, alfalfa is used predominantly in the form of pasture and hay. It has lot of advantages associated with it, like it is more resistant to flood and drought and can withstand grazing pressures in a much better manner. Also, it is more persistent on marginal soils.
Cultivation of Alfalfa
Alfalfa grows best when it is cultivated with utmost care and knowledge. The following provides a guide on effective cultivation of alfalfa:
  • It is extremely important to choose a well drained field for the crop to grow in an effective manner. This is because a well drained field is less prone to disease attack, thereby increasing the life of the crop
  • It is imperative to take the soil samples before cultivating the crop. When being tested in the lab, inform the lab officials that the next crop that that is going to be cultivated is alfalfa so that they can make use of the proper reagents in the test
  • While tilling the land, one should make sure that the seedbeds are firm and extremely smooth. This ensures that the crop has good soil contact. And if one is not making use of the tilling technique, then make sure that the weeds are killed by using a proper herbicide. No matter what method one uses, care should be taken to ensure that the seeds are not planted too deeply
  • The amount of seeds that needs to be sown is heavily dependent on the climate and other conditions. In a good climatic condition, less amount of seeds can be made use of. But in case of adverse conditions, the number of seeds to be shown should be increased
  • The weeds and insects also need to be controlled to a great extent as they can greatly damage the crop
  • Alfalfa requires a large portion of phosphorous and potassium fertilization to keep it strong and healthy. It is recommend to apply fertilization by keeping in mind the amount of alfalfa being harvested each year.

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