Alfalfa is often referred to as the “Queen of Forages” but perceived lack of persistence and low soil pH levels in the southern United States are keeping this queen from her throne.
To help producers learn how to help alfalfa regain royalty, researchers from Clemson University, Auburn University, the University of Georgia (UGA) and the University of Florida (UF) teamed up to host an Alfalfa in the South Field Day for more than 100 participants from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, at FoxPipe Farm in Laurens, South Carolina.
“Alfalfa once was a predominant perennial legume species in the southern United States,” said Liliane Silva, Clemson Cooperative Extension Service forages specialist housed at the Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, South Carolina. “It is not grown as much today, mainly because of lack of knowledge of management requirements and soil pH levels.”
Soil pH, or acidity levels, in the southern United States range from 4.5 to 5.0. Optimum pH for alfalfa ranges from 6.5 to 7. Reed Edwards, co-owner of FoxPipe Farm, has been growing alfalfa since 2016. He said it’s important to “get the pH correct from the beginning” and keep soil acidity levels in check.
“I’ve had a lot of challenges getting the soil pH to move,” said Edwards, who also talked about growing lespedeza. “This is a red clay environment, so it’s important we have regular soil tests conducted. Soil tests can save us money.”
Reqires high potassium
In addition to a proper pH level, alfalfa also requires high amounts of potassium.
To help people learn more about forage crops, Silva has a YouTube channel, Forage Drops. Videos offer research-based advice on practices to follow to create healthier forage systems.
When companion crops are grown with alfalfa, management practices should be adjusted to maintain desired proportion of alfalfa crop in the mixture. Ideal companion crops include grasses, such as bermudagrass and fescue.
A presentation on alfalfa-bermudagrass systems was made during the field day. Participants learned that interseeding alfalfa in bermudagrass can improve forage yield and quality. The Alfalfa Bermudagrass Management Guide, written by Silva, Jennifer Tucker of UGA and Kim Mullenix of Auburn University, compiles best management practices for growing the forages together.
Important steps must be followed for producers growing novel fescue with alfalfa. John Andrae, fescue expert and assistant director of the Clemson Experiment Station, said some tall fescues produce ergot alkaloids that can be toxic for livestock. Andrae, noted that “fescue is a fantastic forage,” but producers should check for toxicity before using it.
“When converting a field from toxic to non-toxic, the first step is to verify if it is toxic,” Andrae said. “If a field is found toxic, you will need to get rid of the toxicity before allowing livestock to graze on it or eat from it.”
To verify a pasture is toxic, send fescue samples to a commercial laboratory.
Replacing toxic stands
Several methods can be used to replace stands of toxic tall fescue. One is the spray-smother-spray method. This involves spraying a toxic pasture in the spring and planting a dense smother crop such as pearl millet. Producers should manage the smother crop as they normally would. After the cover crop is grazed or harvested, the field is sprayed again.
Another method is the spray-wait-spray method – grazing or cutting a field and spraying with a burndown herbicide 6 weeks and again at 4 weeks before the target planting date.
The third method, spray-spray-plant, involves spraying herbicides in the late summer and again four-to-six weeks later followed by planting a new fescue variety just after the second herbicide application.
Regardless of what method is chosen, UGA’s Jennifer Tucker said farmers should get rid of toxic tall fescue as soon as possible as it is the “diabetes of grasses,” or mix the toxic fescue with other non-toxic grasses to decrease toxicity to animals.