Alfalfa is nothing to fear with simple, proper management

Editor’s note: The following is part 2 of two-part series. See part 1.


Photo supplied by Ryan Boyd

The secret — if it is a secret — to pasturing cattle on alfalfa is to follow a few simple management steps to reduce the risk of bloat, say producers from across the country, who for years claim good success by including the forage legume in pasture mixes.

Straight alfalfa stands can be managed quite well, but most producers today are favouring alfalfa/grass forage blends. They are very productive, produce excellent rates of gain on cattle, help to reduce the bloat risk, and also provide important biodiversity. Biodiversity benefits the cattle in providing a range of crops that mature at different times and can handle varying growing conditions, as well as biodiversity to benefit soil health.

The main “not to do” message is don’t turn somewhat hungry cattle into a pre-bloom high percentage stand of alfalfa and leave them to selectively graze the lush leaves. If there is a heavy dew or rain as well, it creates a perfect storm for bloat.

The key “to do” messages include making sure cattle move onto alfalfa pastures with a full gut and the forage stand is dry. Introduce them to lusher forage gradually by limiting the amount of area they have access to in a day, and force them to eat the whole plant including stems and not just leaves. Other “to do” strategies that some producers use — supply a bloat-control agent in cattle drinking water, make some dry hay available as well, as the fibre in hay reduces the risk of gas build up in the rumen, and include low-bloat forage legumes such as sainfoin in the pasture mix.

It is important to apply some basic management principles to capitalize on the benefits of having alfalfa in a grazing program. As grazing research summarized in Part 1 has confirmed over the years, not including alfalfa in pasture mixes can be like leaving money on the table.

Here is what producers from across the country had to say about how alfalfa is managed in their grazing programs: Continue reading

Fear of bloat costs more money than actual cases of bloat do

High protein forage can increase rates of gain, benefit soil

Editor’s note: The following is part 1 of a two-part series. Stay tuned for alfalfa grazing tips from cattle producers from across the country in part 2.

Respect it, but don’t fear it. That’s the message from cattle producers and beef specialists alike who through years of experience and research appreciate the value of grazing cattle on pure or percentage stands of alfalfa.

Properly managed alfalfa makes good pasture with several added benefits, including:

  • Improved weight gains on all classes of cattle (gains of 1.5 to 2 or more pounds per day can be expected);
  • adding fertility to the soil with a nitrogen-fixing crop;
  • creating a hedge against poor forage production during dryer growing seasons; and
  • increasing plant biodiversity to benefit soil health.

Yes, there are circumstances when turning cattle into a lush stand of alfalfa at the wrong time and perhaps with the wrong class of cattle can result in bloat. But paying attention to a few production and management principles can greatly reduce the risk of bloat and provide producers the opportunity to capture the benefits. Continue reading

New sainfoin for safer alfalfa grazing



This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted with permission.

Soil is like a bank account. If the nutrient withdrawals are always larger and more frequent than the deposits, the land bank will eventually go broke.

Plants use nutrients from the soil (and carbon dioxide from the air) to grow roots, stems and leaves. Some plant nutrients get returned to the soil through decomposition, manure and urine, but a lot of them don’t. Cows use the nutrients to produce milk and rebreed, and calves turn the nutrients into weaning weight. Over time, a lot of soil nutrients leave the pasture and go through the auction ring at fall feeder sales. If nutrients aren’t returned to the pasture through fertilizer, pasture productivity will eventually drop, and more forage acres are needed to raise the same number of cattle.

Alfalfa and other legumes help restore soil nitrogen, increase forage yields and extend pasture carrying capacity. The risk of bloat when grazing pure alfalfa stands can be reduced through Continue reading