Pasture Farming With Alfalfa, Red and Ladino Clovers

When pasture farming, planting alfalfa, medium red clovers and ladino clovers into the right type of soil can produce significant results.


| October 2014



Red-Clovers-Square

Planting Legumes like these red clovers in your pasture can give it an edge to growing in a colder and damper climate. Though it does not yield as much hay as alfalfa, the quality of red clover is substantial.

Photo by Fotolia/Ruud Morijn

In All Flesh Is Grass (Swallow Press, 2004), author Gene Logsdon explains why he believes pastoral farming is the solution for a stressed agricultural system, and shares some of the historically effective practices and new techniques from recent years. This excerpt, which is from Chapter 14, “Alfalfa, Red Clover, and Ladino Clover,” Logsdon explains how using legumes, such as alfalfa, red clovers and ladino clovers can produce satisfactory results when planted properly.

You can purchase this book in the GRIT store: All Flesh Is Grass.

Alfalfa

The dairyman whom I worked for in Minnesota years ago often said that he could “make a good living off any farm that would grow good alfalfa.” He was speaking of dairy farming, but I think his observation would be true of most kinds of grain and livestock farming. Alfalfa loves a well-drained, neutral (pH 6–7) soil that is somewhat light and silty rather than heavy clay. It does particularly well on the dry but fertile soils of the West and on naturally well-drained soils of the humid Midwest. If heavier clay soils are underlain with a good tile drainage system, and the soil pH level is brought up to 6.5 with lime, as must be done on most of our land in this part of Ohio, alfalfa will do well, but grudgingly. About the only way to find out on a particular field is to try it. Alfalfa came late to our neck of the woods, red clover being the preferred forage up until about 1950. I distinctly remember when the first alfalfa came to our community. An uncle planted it and it did wonderfully well. Everyone else had to try it and was surprised when it did not grow quite as rambunctiously as it did for him. The reason, soon understood, was that he had wisely chosen for that first planting a field of light, naturally well-drained, silty soil, not characteristic of most of the farms roundabout.

Alfalfa is called the queen of forages mostly because it will outproduce other legumes. It will yield five tons of hay or more from three cuttings, and, on the best soil, yields of ten tons per acre have been recorded from four cuttings. But it takes lots of extra fertilizer to get such high yields. More fertilizer equals more money spent. In nature, there is rarely any instance where one forage crop species really produces “more” than another just because of its innate abilities. It depends on how much money you sink into the crop. If you drain, lime, and fertilize for a ten-ton yield of alfalfa per acre, you might get it. But if weather allows you to take off only five tons, or if the part of the ten tons gets rained on during haymaking, reducing its value considerably, you might lose money trying for high yields. Moreover, if you apply muriate of potash heavily, the usual form of potash fertilizer, in order to get super yields, organic farmers claim that the alfalfa will not be as palatable or digestible. Working with nature is a chancy occupation in which the clichés of business, like “it takes money to make money,” are not always true. That is why there are so many instances of business hotshots getting into farming and losing their butts. Newcomers to farming, reading about alfalfa’s greater potential for high yields, need to remember the downside when they see crusty old contrary farmers sometimes preferring the lesser-yielding red and ladino clovers.

Nevertheless, where alfalfa grows well, and the soil has good phosphorus and potassium content, it should be the first choice of the grazier for one reason above all: it will last four to seven years without a reseeding. This is a great advantage in temporary pastures where the grazier would like to maintain a rotation of five years or more of hay, pasture, and grain.

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