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Fact Sheet RF-AC001
Cooperative E\tension Service
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Alternative Opportunities for Small Farms: Alfalfa
Compiled from information obtained from Carol Chambliss, Earl S. Horner, Charles O. Ruelke, T. D.
Hewitt and John Gordon by Kathleen Ruppert2
Alfalfa has not been widely grown in Florida because
seed of persistent (long-lived) varieties has not been
commercially available. This deficiency has been
corrected by the development of a new variety, 'Florida
77', that is resistant to the spotted alfalfa aphid and is
more productive and persistent than earlier varieties
released in Florida.
Alfalfa is not recommended to a grower who is not
willing or able to fertilize, plant and manage it properly.
It requires a good, fertile soil which is well drained. Soils
which may become waterlogged or flooded for extended
periods must be avoided. Those who have not had
previous experience with alfalfa should plant only a small
acreage the first year to determine how well it grows on
their particular farms.
Alfalfa produces a very high quality forage for all
kinds of livestock, but it is especially valued by dairymen
because of its favorable effect on milk production. Horse
owners in the state also place high value on good alfalfa
hay. At the present time most of the alfalfa hay being fed
to horses and dairy cattle in Florida is imported from other
Alfalfa can be grazed, ensiled, used as a greenchop
feed, or made into haylage (alfalfa wilted to 45 to 50%
moisture and stored in air tight containers) or hay. It is
used most efficiently as fresh forage and least efficiently as
hay, haylage being intermediate. A desirable situation is
to have both hay and haylage making alternatives so that
the crop can be harvested as haylage during rainy periods.
But, this involves additional expense in owning two sets
of harvesting and storage equipment. Use of a large round
baler and a bale wrapping machine to make round bale
silage could be a possible alternative.
Alfalfa hay may be baled in large, round bales as are
most grass hays in Florida. However, the market for
small, rectangular bales is better in many cases. Alfalfa
must be stored under a shelter, or should be protected by
plastic in the field. Weathering of alfalfa hay is much
more severe than with grass hays.
1. This document is Fact SheetRF-AC001, one of a series of the Extension Administration Office, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and
Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. First published: June 1987. Reprinted: January 1994. Reviewed: July 1997. Please visit the FAIRS Web site at
2. Carol Chambliss, associate professor; Earl S. Homer, agronomist; Charles O. Ruelke, professor emeritus; T. D. Hewitt, associate professor, NFREC, Quincy;
John Gordon, professor, Food and Resource Economics Department; Kathleen C. Ruppert, assistant professor, Florida Energy Extension Service; Cooperative
Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611,.
The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer authorized to provide research, educational
information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap, or national origin.
For information on obtaining other extension publications, contact your county Cooperative Extension Service office. Florida Cooperative
Extension Service I Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences / University of Florida / Christine Taylor Waddill, Dean
Alternative Opportunities for Small Farms: Alfalfa Production Review
Labor and Capital
Fall plantings of alfalfa in the southern coastal plain
are generally ready to cut for hay during the months of
March or April in North Florida. Decisions on when to
cut, how to cut, and how often to cut influence the quality
of the hay. Rain and drying conditions also influence the
quality of the hay and must be considered in harvesting.
In 1993, establishment costs for an acre of alfalfa in
North Florida totaled about $311. This includes both cash
expenses of $258 and fixed costs of $53. When
established, an acre producing four cuttings per year will
cost about $275 plus the land costs. With a yield of 4
tons per acre the cost per ton is about $70 while a 5 ton
yield produces a cost of $60 per ton. Prices received for
alfalfa hay range from $125 to $175 per ton and prices
received for haylage range from $50 to $70 per ton with
both price ranges depending upon quality and market.
Harvests should usually be made at intervals of about
4 to 6 weeks during the active growing season. Delaying
harvest beyond 4 weeks results in lower quality forage, a
build-up of leaf disease and loss of leaves. When alfalfa is
grazed, rotational grazing should be used so that plants
have a chance to recover. Strip grazing makes it possible
to utilize the forage more efficiently while damage to the
plant stands is minimized.
At times, making haylage from alfalfa is advantageous
for growers who can utilize it. Poor hay-drying weather
during the rainy, summer period is not as much of a
problem with haylage and more leaves and nutrients can
be preserved. Alfalfa is not so easily ensiled as corn.
Although alfalfa contains more protein, it does not have as
high a level of soluble carbohydrates as corn. Cutting
alfalfa and letting it wilt in the field to 45 to 50% moisture
before chopping and storing improves haylage quality.
Round bales wrapped in plastic or plastic tubes such as
used with a Silopress or Ag Bagger can be a convenient
and desirable alternative for storing alfalfa haylage as
compared to the more permanent storage structures.
Florida 77 is like other alfalfa varieties in that it
performs best on well-drained soils that do not have
highly-developed hardpans. On such soils it develops a
deep root system, which makes it drought-tolerant. In
general, alfalfa has a high water requirement and therefore
irrigation is required in high sandy soils for maximum
productivity. Although alfalfa can experience frost
damage, it will recover.
The economically productive life of a stand of
'Florida 77' will depend largely on soil type, fertilization,
and management. It has been possible to maintain
satisfactory stands for three years on Arredondo fine sand
at Gainesville. The better the initial stand, the better the
chances that an adequate number of plants will survive for
three years or more.
Careful attention must be paid to the lime and
fertilizer requirements of alfalfa if the crop is to be a
success. Lime should be applied before land preparation.
A pH of 6.5 to 7.0 in the top 6 to 10 inches is necessary
for good production. Generally, the fertilizer should be
applied in split applications, half in the fall and half in the
spring. The micronutrient requirements of alfalfa also
require attention (particularly boron).
Alfalfa should be planted early in the fall to insure
establishment of the stand before the first frost. In north
Florida it should be planted between September 15 and
November 1. The seed must be inoculated just before
planting with a fresh supply of the alfalfa-sweetclover
cross-inoculation group of bacteria; on sandy soils, double
the amount recommended on the package should be used.
Ten to 13 lbs of seed per acre should be drilled in rows 6
to 10 inches apart, using a grain drill equipped with a
forage seeding attachment and press wheels. The seed
should be placed at a depth of 0.6 to 0.8 inch, and the soil
should be firmly packed. If drills are not available, the
seed may be broadcast, harrowed in lightly, and
cultipacked. With this method, about 18 to 22 lbs per
acre are required because much of the seed is placed either
too deep or too shallow.
Insects may be a serious problem in alfalfa during the
spring and fall growing seasons. It is necessary to check
the fields frequently, because some insects can build up
rapidly and cause much damage within a few days.
Several diseases caused by pathogenic fungi can affect the
foliage, crown, and root system of alfalfa in Florida, but
no control by use of fungicides is recommended.
Use of herbicides may be necessary to control warm
season grass and broadleaf weed species during seedling
establishment, particularly with early seedings in a warm
Alternative Opportunities for Small Farms: Alfalfa Production Review
fall. Wild mustard or wild radish can also be a problem
during the winter after seeding. After the plants have
reached bloom stage, however, a good stand of
well-fertilized alfalfa will compete successfully with most
weeds because it recovers quickly after harvest and grows
faster than the weeds. It is especially important to avoid
applications of herbicides at rates higher than
recommended. Also, a potential alfalfa producer should
be sure to determine what and when herbicides have been
used on the acreage previously to see if the same
herbicides are compatible with alfalfa.