Is My Alfalfa Safe to Graze?

12:00AM Dec 11, 2009
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By Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska agronomist

Is my alfalfa safe to graze? When I hear that question I can almost imagine the scenarios from which it comes. Usually corn stalks are ready to be grazed. It would be convenient and useful to include an adjacent alfalfa field for extra grazing and protein. The other scenario has grazing ending on summer range but final growth alfalfa is still standing in the field.

In most cases the alfalfa still is quite green, despite several nights with low temperatures in the teens or even single digits like we had last week. There has been some wilting and yellowing but most leaves still are attached to the plant stems.

The real question often being asked is "Can I be sure my cows won't bloat and die if they graze my alfalfa?”.To be quite honest, you never can be 100 % certain that alfalfa won't cause bloat. I remember back to my days on my father's small dairy farm. Over the years that I helped on his farm, my dad had two cows that would bloat even when eating dry alfalfa hay. Since they were good milkers he didn't want to cull them. So those cows were hand fed small amounts of alfalfa hay at a time so their bloat could be minimized.

Thus, the only true answer to questions about grazing alfalfa safety is ‘probably'. But still use good husbandry methods to reduce the risk. Have cows full before turning out to alfalfa. Wait until mid-day, after frost or dew is gone, before turning out. Provide other dry, palatable feeds. And keep a close eye on them for at least the first couple days.

Alfalfa can be safe to graze. Just be careful and realistic.