Also known as the “Queen of Forages,” alfalfa is the fourth-leading crop in the United States.
Coming in behind corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton, alfalfa is extremely popular thanks to its high-yielding capabilities, excellent establishment, and pest-resistance. But this should all be taken with a grain of salt: Not every alfalfa variety can produce at high rates year after year.
That’s why choosing the right variety for your land is one of the most important decisions any farmer can make. And although it might feel tempting to opt for the cheapest or highest-rated variety, it’s wise to steer in the other direction.
“I’ve heard some people say the best way to choose an alfalfa variety is to go to a feed store or supplier and buy the cheapest variety,” said Dan Putnam, University of California Cooperative Extension forage specialist. “I highly recommend against this.”
Here’s why: The overall performance is the most important thing to consider when it comes to selecting alfalfa. Since a single variety can be the difference between thousands of dollars in profits each year, it’s best to review the best ways of choosing the right alfalfa variety for your land.
Tips on How to Select an Alfalfa Variety
Alfalfa is a perennial flowering plant in the legume family. Mainly used as a forage crop for livestock and erosion control, it’s a long-living plant with a deep root system that benefits the surrounding ecosystem greatly. Because of its strong network, alfalfa is very drought-tolerant and can also help improve soil nitrogen fertility and protect against soil erosion in its proximity.
There’s really no question as to why alfalfa is so important for farmers, which is why choosing the right kind is crucial — but no matter the variety you choose, there are several tips you should consider while shopping.
Tip #1: Stick to Certified Alfalfa Varieties
Choosing an alfalfa variety that is certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the best way to begin limiting your options. If you choose to go with an uncertified brand, then you’re gambling a substantial risk for your entire field.
As the grower, you can be sure that certified alfalfa tells you important qualities, such as:
- The identity and overall quality of the seed
- Avoiding planting weeds and attracting pests
- Knowing the seed has excellent germination
- Better chance for high yield
With that being said, you’ll want to avoid blends that don’t have a specified variety label. While many seed companies create these combinations to save money, it’s ultimately harmful to your land. It also poses the grower at risk of planting the wrong fall dormancy variety, which means an entire season is at risk of being wasted.
Tip #2: Refer to On-Farm Trials
One of the most unique characteristics of this plant is that a good variety can continue to show improvement after several years. By researching through local on-farm trials, you’ll be able to see how a particular variety performed over time. With the right data, you could easily measure the yield and accurately guess how it will be for the next coming seasons.
Once you’ve determined a few varieties that seem to have great on-farm trials, you can try planting test trips on your farm an acre at a time. This way, you can see it in action and how it responds to the conditions on your farm. Once you select a variety that has impressive performance in your farm’s soil and pest conditions, you’ll want to consider its overall resistance, fall dormancy, and yield rate.
Tip #3: Select a Fast, High-Yielding Alfalfa Variety
When it comes to farming and planting, the yield is the most important economic factor. Understanding a crop’s yield will help measure the potential financial return for the next coming years. However, knowing which alfalfa is a high-yielding variety is usually determined after several multi-year tests, which is why it’s wise to check out on-farm trials.
If this is not something you want to wait for, then you can select from some top certified variety after it’s been through several trials. Be sure to abide by the general rule of thumb: The very top doesn’t always means it’s best; instead, any of the top three varieties are usually the right call. By determining your fall dormancy range and the alfalfa’s pest-resistance, you’ll be able to select the right variety for your land.
Tip #4: Define Your Fall Dormancy Range
Fall dormancy refers to the reduction in growth during the colder months of the year. Since day length and temperature play a significant role in a plant’s establishment, fall dormancy is an essential thing to consider when choosing an alfalfa variety.
With fall dormancy, there are several ratings that you should become familiar with:
- 1 through 4: Dormant (Very winter-hardy)
- 5 through 7: Semi-Dormant
- 8 through 11: Non-Dormant (No ability to survive cold weather)
Caused by colder weather, alfalfa typically undergoes an acclimation period in the late summer to early fall. Depending on where you live, you can only choose from varieties with individual fall dormancy tolerance.
For example, those who grow in the southern regions don’t have to worry about winter survival. This means they can grow fall dormancy 8 to 10 varieties for season-long growth. On the other hand, regions that experience any semblance of winter will want to consider anywhere between the fall dormancy range of 1 through 7.
Tip #5: Research the Alfalfa Variety’s Pest Resistance
Before selecting a variety, think about which pests occur in your area that pose a threat to your crops. Luckily, almost all alfalfa varieties have excellent nematode resistance, which is why they make such excellent cover crops. However, other species like the alfalfa weevil are known to be a significant nuisance.
That’s why it’s best to look into all potential alfalfa varieties, which may have different levels of resistance:
- 0 to 5%: Susceptible to Pests (S)
- 6 to 14%: Low Resistance to Pests (LR)
- 15 to 30%: Moderate Resistance to Pests (MR)
- 31 to 50%: General Resistance to Pests (R)
- >50%: High Resistance (HR)
Of course, the first thing you should do before selecting a variety based on its resistance is to evaluate the pests in your area. Common pests that are found in the Intermountain regions are not the same found in southwestern deserts and valleys, so you have to consider your region’s specifications.
Selecting the right alfalfa variety may require a lot of research, but it’s well worth it in the end. Doing a little work now will save you years of potential headache down the line, which is why it’s best to abide by these essential tips when selecting a variety for your farm.
The best part is that Granite Seed has a wide variety of certified organic alfalfa blends that can be perfect for your land. Even if you’re not sure where to start, our trusted experts are more than happy to help you choose just the right one.
Check out what Granite Seed has for you today!