Alfalfa/Lucerne

Newsletter No. 28 – July 2005 Item 2-6

History
Ostrich can be reared without Alfalfa included in their diet, but at a tremendous cost to the producers in lost production and putting at risk the long term commercial success of our industry.  For the avoidance of any doubt - Alfalfa and Lucerne are the same plant.

Over the years many have told me that they cannot get Alfalfa in their countries, it cannot be grown, the quality is very poor or it is very expensive.   During the last month there have been several incidents of this and I had one producer quoted US$676 per tonne.  Ostrich require between 30% to more than 50% alfalfa (on a dry matter basis) in their rations - dependent on the production goals of the rations and quality of all ingredients.  A cost of US$676 was clearly uneconomic.  This led me to search for more information to help producers as this is such a key factor to ensure the commercial success of our industry.

This subject is so critical to ensuring the success of our industry,  I am going to focus on Alfalfa production for this newsletter.

Alfalfa is recognised as one the earliest crops to be domesticated by man, with remains of alfalfa more than 6000 years old found in Iran. The oldest written reference for Alfalfa is from Turkey in 1300BC.   During Roman times Alfalfa was linked to military might because of the important role in maintaining the fitness of the war horses.  The Spanish and Portuguese first took Alfalfa to the new world during the conquest of Mexico, Peru and Chile.   The eastern US colonists, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew alfalfa, but it only became widely adopted in the US in the 1850's.  "Chilean Clover" (alfalfa brought from Chile) was introduced during the gold rush of 1849-1850.  From there it spread eastwards to the plains of the United States.

Today the United States grows 23 million acres per annum making Alfalfa the 3rd crop in value behind Maize and Soybeans.  That is the productive value of this amazing forage crop.  Alfalfa production in California is the 3rd most valuable crop behind Grapes and Cotton, but when combined with Dairy and Beef, as these industries are interdependent, they are the most valuable agriculture sector in California.

Since the 1920's average yield has increased by 1/2 ton/acre per decade.  Today, average production is just over 7 tons Dry Matter/acre (+17 tons/hectare).  Evidence is that yields per acre are still increasing, where increase in yields of other cash crops are tending to level out.  This progress is attributed to a number of factors, including improved varieties, better land preparation, better water distribution systems, improved fertility, superior harvesting methods and overall improved management.

Alfalfa is seen as essential for high producing dairy cattle, who have increased yields by more than 60% since the 1970's.  Alfalfa is also used extensively for sheep, beef and other livestock production. It is stated that without alfalfa many farms and ranches would fail.  The same holds true in ostrich production. The lack of quality alfalfa continues to be a contributing factor to the failure of many ostrich farms.   Quality Alfalfa, combined with the correct management systems, is essential to realise the full production potential of Ostrich

Where can it be Grown?
Quote: "Alfalfa is one of the world's most versatile crops.  It is grown in environments ranging from burning hot deserts to cool high mountain valleys, from the frozen continental climate of Minnesota to the Mediterranean valleys of California.  Alfalfa can grow on soils ranging from beach sands to heavy clays.  It is grown as an intensive cash crop under irrigation or as a lower-intensity rainfed pasture crop in forage mixes."   end quote

The above information and quote is taken from a document:  "Alfalfa, Wildlife and the Environment - The Importance and Benefits of Alfalfa in the 21st Century".  The document is published by The University of California, Davis.

Another website that has some useful publications is http://www.alfalfa.org.  This is an alliance of seed producers recently established and developing educational literature to assist producers both within the US and overseas.

Studying all the information that is now available on Alfalfa production it is clear that there have been tremendous advances on varieties to ensure that they are suitable for different climatic and soil conditions.  Varieties are also now more resistant to certain diseases or pests.  Production methods and management systems continue to improve to be able to further increase yields and quality.   Regions that have sufficient rainfall to make field drying difficult do require drying plants.  Some regions use drying plants as they supply markets some distance away and dehydrated pellets is the most cost effective and easiest method of storage and transport.

Quality
During my research one thing struck me very hard and that was the high levels of protein and other nutrients being discussed.  My personal experience in South Africa and Europe was the difficulty to obtain reliable quality.  We even had one European expert tell us that if any company was selling Alfalfa of 20% or above they are either not telling the truth or are adding something to the Lucerne to enhance the protein level.

The percentages are expressed in Dry Matter terms, but well above the average Alfalfa we currently see on the market in many parts of the world.

Alfalfal Nutritional Info

Table 1 - Nutritional characteristics of alfalfa hays of various quality categories*
*CP is crude protein; SolP estimates CP instantly soluble in the rumen; ADIP estimates indigestible CP; UIP estimates CP that escapes the rumen intact; NDF estimates total structural fiber; ADF estimates the portion of NDF that is not hemicellulose; TDN is total digestible nutrients; Nel is net energy for lactation. TDN is calculated as: (82.38 - (.7515 x ADF%)) x 0.9 and Nel is calculated from TDN as: ((.0245 x TDN%) - 0.12) x 0.454.
[Source: WHAT ARE DAIRY NUTRITIONISTS LOOKING FOR IN ALFALFA HAY?
by Peter H. Robinson University of California, Davis.]

The higher the protein the less one needs of the more expensive protein ingredients in a ration, so quality alfalfa can reduce the cost of the rations.  Many countries are dependent on imported Soya for a high protein ingredient.  The higher the protein in alfalfa the more vitamins and minerals also, and as can be seen in the above table, the greater digestibility.  Every effort needs to be made to achieve quality Alfalfa.

To ensure high levels of ostrich production it is imperative that every effort be made to produce quality Alfalfa rather than simply seek alternatives.

Water Consumption
Farmers in regions that have water shortages or expensive water for irrigation, have to weigh up the commercial value of the crops they produce under irrigation.  In this equation the full value of Alfalfa is often not fully appreciated.  I remember well being asked by a large production unit as long ago as 1998 if we could formulate rations without using Alfalfa because of the high water requirement.  My answer was no...those producers are no longer in the industry.  That country has a very high yielding dairy industry that I learned last year cannot overcome some of the problems associated with high yielding dairy herds when not fully nutritionally supported; there is no known substitute for Alfalfa to support high yielding dairy cattle.

All forage crops require water for production and in dry areas irrigation is needed, so it only makes sense to irrigate the most productive forage crop available.  Alfalfa is in a class of it's own amongst forage crops.

Pages 20 to 23 of "Alfalfa, Wildlife and the Environment - The Importance and Benefits of Alfalfa in the 21st Century" referenced above cover this issue in some depth.

Productive Value
The productive value of Alfalfa needs to be fully understood, not simply for it's cash value but also the value in cost effective dairy and red meat production including ostrich meat production, which is a red meat.   Worthy of note in this discussion is that poultry do not do well on Alfalfa.

Alfalfa provides high yields, can be grown in most climates and has disease resistance and excellent feeding quality.   Alfalfa is palatable and nutritious with excellent feeding quality.  When produced correctly Alfalfa is high in protein and in addition provides a tremendous source of organic vitamins and minerals.   Alfalfa is also an integral component of crop rotations because of it's ability to fix nitrogen, improve soil structure and tilth and control weeds in subsequent crops.

Alfalfa is an essential component of commercially viable ostrich production.

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