Alfalfa: A crop that is more than just hay

January 17, 2002

Alfalfa is our nation's third most important crop economically, behind corn and soybeans. About 23 million acres of alfalfa are grown in the U.S. each year, worth more than $6-8 billion annually.

However, mention the word "alfalfa" and some people may associate the word with "sprouts" used on salads or just "hay" for cows. Few would recognize the important role alfalfa plays in their lives in the form of milk, cheese, pizza, ice cream, honey, leather or wool sweaters. Fewer still would recognize the non-economic roles that alfalfa plays in maintaining a healthy environment.

This is an important concern of growers as agriculture enters the 21st century. Farmers have become an increasingly smaller component of the population, and it is safe to say few in the general public have an in-depth appreciation of agriculture.

A public disconnected with agriculture is particularly a problem for alfalfa, which is two steps removed from the dinner plate but nevertheless important for human nutrition.


In an effort to educate and reduce the "farm to urban gap," a group of California alfalfa growers formed an organization called California Alfalfa and Forage Association. The purpose of the organization was to address the increased criticism of alfalfa in relation to water and pesticide use.

During the 1990s, CAFA met with alfalfa critics to discuss these issues and to understand their points of view while educating them as to the benefits of alfalfa culture. From these experiences it was apparent that many of the positive attributes of alfalfa were not well understood by critics and few publications were available supporting agriculture's viewpoint.

Consequently, "Alfalfa, Wildlife and the Environment" was published by CAFA to illustrate the benefits of alfalfa in the 21st century. The goal of this publication is to allow readers to become more familiar with alfalfa's importance as a crop and its contributions to broader social goals.

There are several key points that the publication addresses.

Alfalfa has a broad

economic value

Alfalfa is often characterized as a "low-value crop." Its true economic impact is much greater than its gross receipts. Alfalfa is the beginning of a complex food chain and affects many industries from dairying to wool and beef production and horse racing.

Protecting the soil

The deep-rooted characteristics of alfalfa and year-round canopy help protect soil from becoming airborne or being washed into rivers as sediment.

Rotation/nitrogen benefits

Alfalfa is a legume, which manufactures its own nitrogen and actually provides nitrogen for the next crop, thereby reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

Alfalfa as an insectary

Alfalfa is a source of incredible insect diversity, which includes many valuable "beneficial" insects. These in turn help reduce many other types of pests in alfalfa and other crops.

Efficiency in water use

While it is true alfalfa uses a significant amount of water per year, alfalfa is a relatively efficient user of irrigation water. It produces a high tonnage of dry matter for the amount of water applied.

Mitigating contamination problems

Alfalfa has been used to mitigate several environmental problems that are a consequence of our industrial society, including absorbing nitrates from groundwater, recycling dairy or municipal wastes and mitigating industrial compounds that could contaminate ground water.

Aesthetic value and

open space

While it is difficult to put a value on aesthetics, the open space and beauty that alfalfa provides in a community is significant in its own right.

Copies of the publication can be obtained by calling the California Alfalfa and Forage Association at (415) 892-0167. For further information about alfalfa, see the Web site This Web site has the most recent information about alfalfa culture. Various information about the latest variety trials, integrated pest-management methods of pest control and hay prices plus much more should interest all hay farmers.

>> Herman Meister is the field crops agronomy adviser at the University of California-Imperial County Cooperative Extension.

>>The Cooperative Extension serves all residents of the Imperial Valley.

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