How to grow alfalfa?

Planning for the Alfalfa Growing Season

Planning for the growing season this year has been a little different than in previous years. The winter season seemed to be longer than usual and has producers wondering when they would be able to access their fields. Here is a bit of information for those producers that are considering planting alfalfa this year.

Field Selection

Establishment of alfalfa seed require a well-drained soil for optimum production. A germination soil temperature of 45oF is adequate for alfalfa establishment. Achieving a profitable stand of alfalfa is the result of proper field selection utilizing proven production practices to ensure germination and establishment. Poor soil drainage can cause problems with soil crusting which may cause poor soil aeration, micronutrient toxicity, and ice damage during winter.

Soil Fertility

It is important to remember to ALWAYS take soil samples before planting to determine pH and nutrient status of the field. Overall, there are 18 nutrients (macronutrients and micronutrients) essential for alfalfa growth. Some of these nutrients include:

  • Phosphorus: Helps root growth and increase seeding success. Low fertility soils can be improved with an application of 30-50 lbs per acre of P2O5, depending on soil test results.
  • Potassium: Research suggests that potassium has little effect or influence on improving stand establishment, however, adequate potassium should be added to meet the needs of alfalfa and even a companion crop.

Planting Alfalfa

Failure to successfully establish alfalfa can be expensive and may lead to issues related to production soil erosion. Some considerations for planting alfalfa include: (1) seedbed preparation; (2) seeding dates; (3) seeding depth and rate; (4) whether or not to seed with a companion crop; (5) 100% alfalfa seedings vs. alfalfa-grass mixtures.

  1. Seedbed preparation
    Having a firm seedbed is a critical step to ensure good germination of alfalfa seed. Firm seedbeds will reduce the possibility of planting too deep and will help hold moisture closer to the surface. Packing the soil will help to insure a firm seedbed and good soil moisture retention.
  2. Seeding dates
    Determining when to plant alfalfa depends on several factors such as soil moisture and cropping practices. For best results in South Dakota alfalfa should be seeded between mid-April to mid-May. This all depends on weather conditions as well. This year might be safe to say that seeding alfalfa in mid-May might be the best option for producers.
  3. Seeding depth and rate
    Seed should be covered with enough soil to provide moist conditions for germination. Seed placement of ¼ to ½ inch deep is appropriate on most soils at rates from 10 to 25 lb seed/acre.
  4. Seeding with or without a companion crop
    Seeding alfalfa with a companion crop such as annual ryegrass, oats, spring barley, or spring triticale can help to minimize weed competition during establishment. However, planting alfalfa without a companion crop allows producers to harvest more alfalfa with higher quality in the seeding year.
  5. 100% alfalfa seedings vs. alfalfa-grass mixtures
    Pure stands of alfalfa will produce the highest quality forage and for that reason has the highest demand from the dairy industry. Other producers whose animals’ nutrient requirements are lower may be interested in using alfalfa/grass blends to take advantage of improved persistency while still meeting the nutrient requirements of their livestock. Alfalfa-grass mixtures also offers some advantages such as reduced weed pressure and soil erosion.

The Bottom Line

It is always handy to remember that the first harvest seeding year is when alfalfa is seeded in the spring and considerations of taking one or two cuttings in the same year need to be made by then. The first harvest should be done after the flowers begin to appear, allowing greater energy reserves in the roots. Generally, alfalfa will reach this stage of development 60 to 70 days after emergence. Harvesting delays during this stage will cause large reductions in quality and a decline in total yield over the season because fewer harvests are possible.

I hope this growing season is another successful one. We might be a little slow this year; but that does not mean we won’t be able to achieve the goals for production.

Connect With Us!

PHOTO: Peter Roome/Flickr by J. Keeler Johnson May 6, 2016

For many farmers, growing your own hay to feed your livestock is one satisfying step closer to a self-sufficient farm. If you’re lucky enough to have several large, open fields on your farm, growing your own hay can be a very viable project. But as with any crop, growing hay has its share of complexities and challenges that must be considered before you get started. Here are some tips to help you grow quality hay.

What Makes Quality Hay?

Growing quality hay requires a combination of weed-free fields and good weather. One of the keys to growing quality hay is harvesting it at the appropriate time, before the seeds of grass hay mature and before legume plants bloom. Once the hay begins to mature, the amount of nutrients can diminish quickly, leading to lower-quality hay that is less nutritious.
Hay cannot get wet once it’s been cut, as this further reduces the nutrient content and can cause the hay to mold once it’s been baled. Growing quality hay can be a careful balancing act between cutting at the time of peak nutritional value while avoiding rainstorms and cutting only during stretches of dry weather.

Hay Varieties

There are many different types of hay that you can grow, and which you choose will vary depending on where you live. Some of the most common include:

  • Grass: Hay can be made from many types of grass, with timothy, bermudagrass and orchardgrass being common choices.
  • Legume: Alfalfa is the dominant member of the legume family when it comes to making hay, with clover another to consider and bird’s-foot trefoil a popular choice for hayfields containing more moisture.
  • Grass/Legume Combinations: Growing a combination of grass and legumes can yield quality hay, and the legumes add nitrogen to the soil, which is necessary for the grasses to grow to their potential.

Preparing Soil for Planting

To grow quality hay, you’ll need to sample your soil to determine if any fertilizers or soil amendments should be applied. As mentioned above, ample nitrogen is important for grass hay, while for legumes, phosphorus and potassium are key soil nutrients. To ensure that the soil pH level is appropriate for growing hay, limestone may need to be added several months in advance of planting. Having an expert test your soil and recommend fertilizer amounts can help ensure that your soil is well-prepared for growing hay.

Improving Yield

The amount of hay your fields can produce will depend in great part on the number of important nutrients available in the soil, so supplying fertilizers every few years can help you to greatly improve yield. Rotating the crops you grow in your fields can also be helpful, especially with alfalfa, which doesn’t perform as well when grown in the same fields for too many years. Alfalfa does better growing in fields that have previously been used for crops in different plant families, such as corn.

Hay Growing Challenges

Moisture content and pests are two of the main challenges of growing quality hay.

Moisture Content

Hay must be dried in the field after cutting to avoid mold growth. For small square bales, a moisture content of around 20 percent or less is fine, but for large square and round bales, the moisture content will need to be lower—as little as 15 percent. Hay moisture meters can be purchased to give you an accurate measurement.


Insect pests, such as alfalfa weevils, can also be serious problems. For large infestations of alfalfa weevils, which can destroy an entire crop of alfalfa, spraying with insecticides may be necessary, although another solution is to cut the hay earlier than usual, which kills the weevils while preserving the hay from further damage. Consult an expert to determine the best approach.

It’s also important to be on the lookout for blister beetles. Although they don’t usually cause much damage to crops, blister beetles contain a bodily fluid that causes blisters, and horses that eat hay containing the beetles will develop internal blisters that can cause death. Blister beetles are usually found in bunches, and should you discover them in portions of your fields, it might be wise to avoid cutting those sections rather than risk baling the beetles in your hay.

Harvesting Hay

When harvesting quality hay, there are a couple of factors to consider:

How Many Cuttings?

Depending on the weather and the length of your growing season, it can be possible to cut hay early in the year, let it regrow, and then cut it once or even twice more before fall arrives. These second and third cuttings can produce higher-quality hay that is prized among farmers.

Your Harvest Schedule

When should you expect to cut your hay for the first time each year? Naturally, this will vary depending on your location and whether you’ve experienced an early or late spring, but the typical time for the first cutting of alfalfa can range from as early as February or March in western states, such as California, to as late as June in northern states, like Wisconsin and Montana.

Shorter growing seasons also mean that you can’t cut as late into the year as in areas with long seasons of warm weather. In many states, cutting season ends in September, but in a few lucky states the cutting season can extend into November. Alfalfa in particular can be tricky to cut at the right time of year.

For more information on haying season, visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

Baling Hay

Hay can be baled in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on available equipment and personal preference. Small square bales and large round bales are the most common; large square bales that weigh similar to round bales also exist.
Small square bales require more handling than larger bales, but offer the benefit of being more manageable. Weighing between 40 to 60 pounds, they can easily be moved around by a single person, whereas machinery is required for moving large square and round bales.

Testing Your Hay

In some respects, the quality of the hay you produce can be measured by its appearance and smell. Does it have rich color, or is it dull and gray? Does it smell fresh? Is it dusty? Does the hay have a high amount of leaf material (which has higher nutritional value), or have the leaves mostly shattered during cutting and baling?

But while a visual examination can tell you a lot about your hay, an official chemical test can tell you about the nutritional value of your hay. Several nutritional factors can be measured, including the crude protein content of the hay, which can help determine how much hay to feed to your animals and also gives you an idea of your hay’s monetary value.
The National Forage Testing Association (NFTA) certifies labs to test hay, and having a NFTA-certified lab analyze your hay is the best way to get an accurate measurement of its nutritional values. The Penn State Extension has more information.

Pricing Your Hay

If you’re able to produce more hay than your animals need, good for you—you’ll have some left over to sell! However, choosing how much to charge for your hay can be tricky and will vary depending on where you live.

The first step is to add up the cost of producing your hay, taking into account all expenses involved such as the cost of seeding, fertilizers, hired help, and running the equipment. Adding up all expenses and dividing by the number of bales produced can give you the cost per bale, the perfect starting point for setting your price. Research what other haymakers in your region are charging per bale. If you find that offering a competitive price means you can’t make a profit, you might be better off keeping your hay for your own use. On the other hand, if you have produced top-quality hay, you might be able to charge a higher price than your competitors and still find buyers.

Growing quality hay requires a lot of patience and effort, but these tips should help get you started.

A Guide to Growing, Harvesting and Baling Hay

In that case the cereal is harvested at the end of the first season, while the hay is generally left uncut until the following year.

If irrigation is normally required to grow vegetables in your area, you’ll find it profitable to give your hayfield the same treatment. In semi-arid regions like ours (with an average precipitation of 14 inches a year), artificially watered stands yield three to four times as much fodder as their parched counterparts. (Alfalfa, for example, requires 831 pounds of water to produce one pound of dried hay.)

Most hayfields will flourish for five years or more without reseeding. The only care necessary during that time is the spreading of fertilizers as needed and a periodic harvesting of the crop. One possible exception: Your locality could suffer an infestation of aphids or locusts some season … with disastrous results. Whether or not you spray under such conditions is a matter of conscience. If you choose not to do so, you can reduce your losses substantially by cutting the hay immediately upon attack and drying and storing it fast enough to save it from total annihilation.

Even in a normal year, when you’re not racing a horde of hungry pests, the timing of the hay harvest is very important. The reason for this is that as the forage crop’s blossoms develop, its energy goes into producing seed and its nutritional value begins to decrease. Legumes should therefore be cut at 10 to 20 percent of full flower for maximum protein and vitamin content. Grass hay is usually put up a little later by the calendar (just when depends on the climate of your area), but still during early bloom.

Three steps are involved in turning a green crop into what can rightfully be called hay:

Cutting (followed by partial drying.)

Windrowing (followed by further drying.)

Baling hay or stacking hay.


Just how you go about these operations depends on the amount of the harvest and the availability of money, equipment, and manpower.

In days of yore, hay was cut with a scythe and windrowed and stacked with a fork (all by hand). Unless very small amounts (two acres or less) of the animal feed are being put up or unless one is very thoroughly hung up on the romantic tradition this method is now impractical. (Someone who’s good with a scythe really ought to write an article on the subject. I’ve tried my hand with the old time tool and rate its proper use as an art.)

Nowadays, most hay cutting is done with a mechanical mower powered by a tractor or horse. True, the tractor-driven model is two or three times faster, but you can buy its old-fashioned counterpart for almost nothing (after all, who uses horses anymore?) and you’ll find it quite efficient. The mower (see Figure 2 in the image gallery) cuts a seven foot swath and ought to be able to handle one acre per hour. (Incidentally, if horses or mules aren’t available, such equipment can be pulled by a tractor running at very low speed.)

Freshly cut hay is allowed to dry (pray for clear weather!) for anywhere from a half day to three days after it’s mowed. It’s then windrowed, or raked into rows. The tool commonly used for this purpose is the so called side delivery rake (see Figure 3 in the image gallery), an ingenious horse– or tractor–drawn device which sweeps the stalks into neat columns with leaves turned inward and stems outward (to promote uniform drying).

The raking operation goes quite fast once you get the hang of it. It’s a bit tricky, though, since two mowed swaths must usually be thrown together to form one windrow of suitable size for field curing. A steady hand on reins or steering wheel is required and slip-ups will probably bring some ridicule from neighboring farmers, who derive considerable amusement from amateur efforts (as I learned during my first summer).

The windrowed hay is next allowed to dry until most of its moisture has evaporated. One simple test for dryness is to twist stalks taken at random and examine them for internal dampness. Another is to put some wisps in a small box along with a couple of teaspoons or so of salt. Shake the container vigorously for about one minute. If the salt remains dry, the hay is ready to store.

Baling or stacking wet hay is not only economically foolish since the fodder may mold or rot, and no livestock will eat it in that state but downright dangerous. Moisture in the stack can lead to spontaneous combustion, a lesson many a farmer has learned by the light of his burning barn.

“Make hay while the sun shines” is the traditional rule. Nevertheless, a passing rain on the hayfield isn’t quite as serious as it’s often made out to be. just wait a day or so after the shower until the surface of the cut fodder has dried. Then make another run through the fields with the side-delivery rake to turn the windrows over so that their bottoms can dry. If you’re lucky, very little of the fine, choice leaves and other tender foliage will “shatter” and fall off. An extended wet spell, however, is another matter, a misfortune that can ruin a harvest. Keep tabs on the weather reports during haying, and — as noted, if you’re so disposed — pray.

Dried hay may be stored in stacks or in bales. The easiest way to gather the fodder for stacking is to have someone drive a truck or pull a trailer between windrows while several helpers fork on the harvest. If you lay ropes on the empty bed of the vehicle and loop them over the top of the finished heap, unloading will be a simple matter of tying the ends of the cords to some stationary object such as a tree and driving away.

Haystacks should be built to look like haystacks, and if you don’t know what I mean, you might do well to spend an afternoon in an art museum, with particular attention to the room that houses the Dutch masters. The larger the stack the better, because big piles have a smaller ratio of surface area to volume and soon pack down, thus preventing rain from seeping in and ruining the hay.

To offset its lack of Old World flavor (which only the most discerning of livestock will notice) baled hay has the advantages of being easier to handle, requiring less time and labor to put up, and taking less storage space. The chief drawback here, however, is that you’ll need a baler — a small factory in itself — which is often expensive both to buy and to maintain. (Beware of “bargains” … we bought a twine tie baler, used, for $200 and put many gray hairs on our heads as a result.)

Unless you’re putting up enough dried foliage — say 15 to 20 acres — to justify the purchase of a good used baler, I’d suggest that you either stack your hay or hire a custom operator to do the baling for you. A check on local rates may very well show that the service is less expensive than ownership of the necessary equipment.

A closing note that may be of special interest to communes and other groups: In most of this country’s rural areas, it’s possible to pick up some extra money during the summer by “bucking” hay (taking bales from the field and building them into a neat pile or putting them up in a barn’s loft). You’ll generally be paid at a fixed rate of so many cents per bale in the western half of the country and so much per hour back east. We’ve found that a bucking crew of a female driver and three men can handle an average of 500 bales a day.

Before you start calling me a sexist, by the way, please consider that every one of these solid blocks of fodder weighs about 75 pounds. I well remember the day when one of our woman members decided to help buck while the rest of us took turns driving. She ended the afternoon in tears of exhaustion. It’s that kind of work, which is why most farmers are more than willing to pay somebody else to do it for them. Before you commit yourself to bucking 10,000 bales, though, try working at the job on a trial basis for a day or two first … just to make sure you want the money as much as you’ll have to labor to get it.

Considerations for Planting Alfalfa in Spring

Producers are trying to get their alfalfa planted. Some areas have been very wet which have made this process very difficult to accomplish. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when planting alfalfa this growing season.

Considerations when planting alfalfa

  1. Alfalfa seed requires a well-drained soil for optimum production. Poor soil drainage can cause problems with soil crusting which may cause poor soil aeration, micronutrient toxicity, and ice damage during winter.
  2. It is important to remember to take soil samples before planting to determine pH and nutrient status of the field.
  3. Seedbed preparation is a critical step to ensure good germination of alfalfa seed. Firm seedbeds will reduce the possibility of planting too deep and will help hold moisture closer to the surface. Packing the soil will help to insure a firm seedbed and good soil moisture retention.
  4. Determining when to plant alfalfa depends on several factors such as soil moisture and cropping practices. For best results in South Dakota alfalfa should be seeded between mid-April to mid-May.
  5. Seed should be covered with enough soil to provide moist conditions for germination. Seed placement of ¼ to ½ inch deep is appropriate on most soils at rates from 10 to 25 lb seed/acre.
  6. Seeding alfalfa with a companion crop such as annual ryegrass, oats, spring barley, or spring triticale can help to minimize weed competition during establishment. However, planting alfalfa without a companion crop allows producers to harvest more alfalfa with higher quality in the seeding year.
  7. Pure stands of alfalfa will produce the highest quality forage and for that reason has the highest demand from the dairy industry. Other producers whose animals’ nutrient requirements are lower may be interested in using alfalfa/grass blends to take advantage of improved persistency while still meeting the nutrient requirements of their livestock.

Tips for fall seeding of alfalfa

Growers in northwest Kansas can plant as early as Aug. 10-15, he says. Those in southeast Kansas can plant in mid- to late September. In other parts of Kansas, planting time is late August or early September.

“Producers just need to plant early enough to have three to five trifoliate leaves before the first frost. Alfalfa is a three- to five-year or longer investment. Some producers shy away from alfalfa because of its high establishment cost and risk of stand failure,” the agronomist adds.

“In the long run, however, it’s relatively inexpensive, if amortized over the life of the crop,” Shroyer continues. “If managed properly and if we have a good year in terms of weather, dryland alfalfa can produce four to six tons of forage per acre per year. Irrigated fields can produce eight to 12 tons per acre per year.”

When planting alfalfa, producers should keep the following in mind:

  • Test the soil. Alfalfa grows best in well-drained soils with a pH of 6.5 to 7.5. If the land needs lime, add it before planting. Apply the needed phosphorus and potassium. Each cutting removes 10 pounds of phosphorus per acre for each ton of forage harvested, so it’s an annual input.
  • Plant certified, inoculated seed. Inoculation helps alfalfa seedlings fix available soil nitrogen for optimum production.
  • Plant in firm, moist soil. If possible, prepare the seedbed and plant after a rain. Tilling after a rain will reduce soil moisture. A firm seedbed ensures good seed-soil contact; therefore, use a press wheel with the drill to firm the soil over the planted seed. Or, consider no-till planting in small-grains stubble – which is a successful alternative and in some areas is the primary mode of planting.
  • Don´t plant too deeply. Plant one-fourth to one-half-inch deep on medium- and fine-textured soils and three-fourths-inch deep on sandy soils. Don´t plant deeper than 10 times the seed diameter.
  • Use the right seeding rate. Plant 8 to12 pounds of seed per acre of dryland in western Kansas, 12 to15 pounds per acre in irrigated medium- to fine-textured soils, 15 to 20 pounds per acre on irrigated sandy soils, and 12 to 15 pounds per acre of dryland in central and eastern Kansas.
  • Check for herbicide carryover that could damage the new alfalfa crop – especially when planting alfalfa no-till into corn or grain sorghum stubble. In areas where row crops were drought-stressed and removed for silage, that set up a great seedbed for alfalfa, but may still bring a risk of herbicide damage.
  • Choose pest-resistant varieties. Resistance to phytophthora root rot, bacterial wilt, fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt, anthracnose, the pea aphid, and the spotted alfalfa aphid is essential. Some varieties are resistant to even more diseases and insects.

More information about growing alfalfa in Kansas can be found in the annual performance bulletins and the “Alfalfa Production Handbook.” That information also is available on the web at:

Planting methods for successful alfalfa establishment

Alfalfa is one of the major forage crops in dairy and livestock production as well as an expensive crop to establish. Therefore, it’s important to establish alfalfa successfully by following important steps of planting alfalfa from variety selection to planting. Following are the factors to consider in alfalfa planting.

Site selection. Alfalfa does well on well-drained soil rather than wet, heavy clay soils and requires good soil pH ranging from 6.5 to 7.0. If your soil pH is lower than 6.5, symbiotic nitrogen fixation may not function properly. Thus, liming will be required to raise low soil pH to its optimum level and make better nutrient uptake. Each harvested dry matter ton of alfalfa removes approximately 11 pounds of P2O5 and 53 pounds of K2O. Follow soil test recommendations from the Michigan State University Soil Testing Lab after your soil is analyzed.

Seeding rate. For pure alfalfa stands, 18 to 20 pounds per acre should be planted. For mixed stands with grass, 15 to 16 pounds per acre is recommended. For broadcast seeding, seeding rates need to be increased by 10 to 20 percent.

Weed control. For spring seeding, weed control is essential to prevent seeding failure from severe weed pressure. For conventional planting, pre-emergence herbicide, such as Eptam or Chateau, can be incorporated into the soil before planting alfalfa. On no-till planting, only post-emergence herbicides, such as Raptor, Pursuit, or Select can be used.

Conventional planting. Conventional tillage is a more desirable planting method for flat and uniform fields than no-till planting, which is for rocky or steep slopes. Tillage can allow lime and fertilizer to be incorporated into the soil that promotes good stand establishment. Having firm seedbed is essential to good seed-soil contact, and as a rule of thumb, an adult’s foot hill should be about 1/4” to 1/2″ deep. Either cultipacker type seeder or a grain drill can be used for a conventional tillage for planting alfalfa.

No-till planting. In general, no-till costs less than a conventional tillage in terms of time, fuel and power requirements. Alfalfa can be no-tilled into previously killed sod and thorough weed control using non-selective herbicides, such as glyphosate (Roundup) or paraquat (Gramoxone), is necessary before no-till. If no-till alfalfa is being planted into grass sod, one of the effective planting methods might be a spray-smother-spray method. First, spray the growing grass sod with a non-selective herbicide. Second, no-till plant an annual forage crop, such as winter wheat or rye, to smother regrowth of any grass sod or break-hard sod. Third, harvest winter annual forage crops. Fourth, spray herbicide before planting alfalfa.

Growing Alfalfa – How To Plant Alfalfa

Alfalfa is a cool-season perennial commonly grown for feeding livestock or as a cover crop and soil conditioner. Alfalfa is highly nutritious and a natural source of nitrogen. It’s ideal for improving the soil and providing erosion control. Alfalfa’s extensive root system nourishes both plants and soil. The alfalfa plant has been cultivated for generations and growing alfalfa in your garden is easy. Keep reading to learn more about how to grow alfalfa.

How to Grow Alfalfa Plant

Easily grown and propagated, alfalfa adapts well to nearly any garden, tolerating a wide range of growing conditions. It makes a good drought-resistant plant too, as it doesn’t like wet feet. In fact, too much moisture can lead to mold growth.

When growing alfalfa, choose an area with plenty of full sun. Also look for a well-draining area with a soil pH level between 6.8 and 7.5.

Prior to planting, you should clean the area, work the soil, and remove any debris. Pure alfalfa seed can

be purchased from most feed supply stores.

How to Plant Alfalfa

Those living in cooler climates can plant alfalfa in spring while milder regions should opt for fall planting. Since alfalfa roots quickly, it doesn’t require deep planting—only about a half inch deep. Merely sprinkle the seeds evenly onto the soil and cover lightly with dirt. Use about ¼ pound of seeds per 25 square feet and space rows about 18-24 inches.

You should begin to see sprouts within seven to 10 days. Once seedlings have reached about six to 12 inches, thin them as needed to avoid overcrowding issues.

Unless growing alfalfa as hay for livestock, allow it to grow until crops are ready to be planted or its purple blooms appear, at which time you can simply mow it down and till it into the soil or leave it. The alfalfa shoots will breakdown. This ‘green manure‘ will then fertilize the soil as well as stimulate microbial activity, thus aerating it too.

Harvesting Alfalfa Plant

If planting alfalfa for livestock, it will need to be harvested and cured prior to flowering (known as early-bloom stage). It becomes more difficult for these animals to digest once the plant matures. Harvesting in this early-bloom stage also ensures the most optimal nutrient percentages, which is often found in the plant’s leaves.

Do not cut alfalfa if rain is imminent, as this can damage the crop. Rainy weather can lead to issues with mold. Quality alfalfa hay should possess good green color and leafiness as well as a pleasant aroma and thin, pliable stems. Once harvested, the ground will need to be turned before next season’s planting takes place.

Alfalfa has few pest problems; however, the alfalfa weevil can cause serious damage. In addition, the stem nematode can infest and weaken stem buds.

Vegetable Verbiage: The Difference Between Soil Sprouts and Microgreens

I’ll start with the basics: When a seed sprouts, it sends out a root and a stem with a seed leaf. The seed leaf is the two halves of a seed when it opens and becomes a set of leaves. Once the seed leaves spread out the first true leaf appears in the crotch of the two leaves. The true leaf resembles the leaves of the mature plant both in look and flavor. Each of the parts of a plant can be encouraged to grow in different ways using different techniques that I’ll explain below. At the end of each section I’ll list a few of the pros and cons. I’ll compare each of these different traditional methods to growing soil sprouts, the subject of this book. Growing soil sprouts is my yardstick.


Microgreens are grown for the first true leaves of a plant instead of just the stem and seed leaf. It is not a distinction without a difference. The first true leaf takes a little longer to develop. The tray of sprouting seeds is introduced to a light source as soon as the seeds begin to sprout and root. When you introduce light the seed leaf spreads out near the soil and sends up the true leaf. The first true leaf looks like the plant. The seed leaf, by contrast, is not as distinct to the variety and resembles the shape of the seed itself. The flavor of microgreens is more characteristic of the mature plant. Microgreens require full sunlight, a fluorescent lightbulb, or LED grow light to grow properly; you will not be able to get a good crop with just sunlight from a windowsill.

There are a wide selection of seed varieties that can be grown for microgreens. The most commonly used varieties are arugula, broccoli, beets, cabbage, Swiss chard, kale, kohlrabi, komatsuna, mizuna, mustard, radish, basil, cilantro, celery, dill, fennel, fenugreek, salad burnet, shiso, and sorrel.

The Pros and Cons of Growing Microgreens

The pros of growing microgreens for salads are the wide variety of flavors available and the custom mixes of seeds that are unique and fun. There are a number of colors and textures as well as flavors that make a great palette for the creative cook.


The downside of growing microgreens is really a list of things. It starts with the need for lights or a greenhouse. In the winter, when you need greens the most, you need a heated greenhouse. The trays are large trays and need a lot of space to grow enough for a salad every day. It takes at least 2 weeks to grow a crop, some take longer—up to 4 weeks until harvest. Microgreens are usually grown in a standard 20-inch by 10-inch (50.8 × 25.4 cm) black plastic tray or something similar to that.

By my measurements it would require a tray per day to harvest a salad bowl of microgreens. That would require the home grower to have fourteen trays growing at all times. You would need seven 4-foot (1.2 m) fluorescent light fixtures or a heated greenhouse to provide a steady supply of greens. It would be very expensive to heat a greenhouse for the winter, and it would require a lot of precious indoor space to house fourteen trays.


Sprouts are simply seeds grown for the root, stem, and seed leaf. The most well known of all the sprouts are alfalfa sprouts. Sprouts are commonly grown in a quart Mason jar with a screen top. Seeds are soaked overnight, rinsed, and drained, then set up to allow the remaining water to drain. The jars of soaked seeds require rinsing three times a day. After the first day you can see the tails of the root appear. Within a few days the root lengthens and the seed becomes yellow leaves. Sprouts are ready in about 7 days.

The home gardener can grow sprouts using stacked plastic trays that rely on gravity to rinse the seeds. When water is poured into a top tray, it rinses and hydrates the seeds as it flows down through the trays. The bottom tray is a reservoir for the rinse water. These appliances are usually limited to three or four stacked trays.

The harvest is the root, stem, and seed leaf about 3 or 4 inches (7.6–10.2 cm) long. They can be used with the seed leaf still yellow, although if grown in a kitchen there is usually enough light to green the tiny seed leaves. Alfalfa, clover, broccoli, radish, arugula, cress, and mustard are the most common seeds grown for sprouts.

The Pros and Cons of Growing Sprouts

The most appealing aspect of sprouts is the downright simplicity in getting started. A jar, seeds, and a piece of screen is all it takes to grow sprouts. The simplicity stops there when you consider both rinsing three times a day and a place to put all the jars for the 7 days it takes to mature to a usable size. Rinsing takes a lot of fresh water and is required morning, noon, and night, so it is a significant time commitment.

Another drawback of growing sprouts is the unforgiving nature of this technique; miss a rinsing and you have mush in a jar. The entire jar full can be lost to rot, just like that. I have verified in my classes that this is a common experience and not just my problem. It is tough to be that diligent with our busy lives.

What I use as a gauge to measure a growing technique is how much it will take to produce a salad every day that will feed four people. That is about 12 to 16 ounces (340.2–453.6 g) of finished greens. For sprouts a salad every day requires three to four jars a day times 7 days. Finding space for between twenty-one and twenty-eight jars is complicated in a small kitchen. What I hear in my classes is that most people grow a few jars of sprouts and add them to their regular salads rather than trying to find space for twenty-eight jars. Another drawback to sprouts is washing the seed hulls off the greens. I have done a lot of this, and even though I am good at it, it does take a lot of time, not to mention a lot of fresh water.


Shoots usually describes pea shoots. They are essentially grown the same way as soil sprouts, but with peas there is no seed leaf; there is just a stem and side branches of tiny leaves. French lentil and adzuki beans are similar and can be called shoots, too. Sometimes you see corn listed with shoots in seed catalogs, but they do not make a good salad green.

The Pros and Cons of Shoots

Shoots share the same set of pros and cons as soil sprouts. One additional advantage to shoots is that they will regrow after the first cutting, although each successive cutting is smaller than the first.

Baby Greens

Baby greens are grown for full-sized true leaves of the plant but are cut before the main stems develop. They fall within the group of immature greens that fit our general description of microgreens. Lettuces are good candidates for baby greens, as are any variety of beet or Swiss chard. The hands-down favorite baby green in the United States is baby spinach. Baby greens are seeded closer than normal plantings but not as close as microgreens. They need about 40 days from planting to harvest. They are grown in greenhouses, in a raised bed in wide rows, and can be grown indoors but require lights. Just about any seed variety that works for a mesclun mix will produce baby greens. Timing a harvest is critical, so I would not recommend growing a mix of greens but instead growing each seed variety separately. That way as the baby plant grows you can cut it at just the right stage for a salad. Because of the long growing time make sure you have a deep tray of rich soil if they are grown indoors.

The Pros and Cons of Baby Greens

Baby spinach is like the Holy Grail of fresh greens. You should be able to get two cuttings from a bed or tray. For the home gardener trying to grow fresh greens in the winter is not a good choice. Baby greens require either a heated greenhouse or shelves with grow lights. To grow enough for the salad every day, about 12 to 14 ounces (340.2–396.9 g) of cut greens, the gardener would need to have about twenty 20-inch by 10-inch (50.8 × 25.4 cm) trays and ten 4-foot (1.2 m) grow lights. That’s a big commitment of space and resources in a home. If it was necessary I might consider it, but the fact is, you can grow that amount of greens in a much smaller space with shoots and soil sprouts.

Soil Sprouts

Soil sprouts, as you already know by now, is my own descriptive term for sprouts grown in soil. They are grown in soil versus in jars. They are grown for the stem and seed leaf, like sprouts, but not the root. The trick to getting a productive crop is forcing the seeds in the dark for 4 days. This encourages a long stem. Once the stems are about 1 inch tall, the tray is ready to come out of the dark and into the light. The stems will continue to grow, and the seed leaves will mature for another 3 to 5 days until they are ready to cut. They are cut just above the soil line, leaving the roots in the soil. Once the greens are cut they will not grow another crop.

The Pros and Cons of Soil Sprouts

The upside of soil sprouts is the lush greens that you can harvest in a short growing season. You can grow large seeds like sunflower with the hulls or small seeds like broccoli using the same technique. Soil sprouts are very productive for the time and space involved. Watering is only once a day, and if you miss a watering, they will not rot and die. Of all the ways to grow immature greens or microgreens, this is the easiest and most productive technique.

The cons of soil sprouts are having trays and soil ready and the time it takes for the daily plantings.

Making a comparison of methods of growing immature greens is useful to us not only in highlighting my decision to grow soil sprouts, but also because it helps to define the methods and match them to what you want from an indoor garden. If you are like me and want a big pile of fresh greens every day, then growing soil sprouts is the answer for you, too.

More from Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening:

• All-Star-All-Sprout Salad Recipe

Reprinted with permission from Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening by Peter Burke and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening.

When someone says the word “microgreen,” what is the first thing that you think of?

“It’s the baby version of the mature vegetable, of course.”

“It’s a sprout.”

“They’re really pretty, decorative plants!”

Only one of those three response above are accurate.

Microgreens, contrary to very popular belief, are not the same things as sprouts. In fact, not only do they look and taste different, but even the way in which they are grown is different.

Another difference is that microgreens and sprouts are technically at different parts of the growing cycle of any given vegetable/herb.

All plants start as a seed.

Think of a seed as an embryo. Seeds are embryos that come with a protective shell, which is called the seed coat, and in it contains all the wonderful nutrients and vitamins that the plant inside needs to burst out of that coating.

Between the protective coating and the embryo is the endosperm, which wraps around the embryo and gives the little baby nutrition.

Let’s talk about sprouts, baby

Then, comes sprouting.

Sprouts are germinated seeds. What this means is that the “germ” of the seed awakes from its slumber, and becomes a real, live plant.

Using the nutrients stored in the seed, the embryo develops its stem.

Imagine a bean sprout: that’s the infant plant’s stem!

If you let a sprouting seed grow, then it eventually becomes a full-grown plant. But until then, what you have are crunchy, refreshing sprouts.

Oftentimes, people germinate sprouts in water. To ensure that they do not mould, those seeds are rinsed once or twice a day. Sprouts grow really quickly, and can be harvested in about four to six days.

Very little light and nutrition (none at all, actually) is needed for sprouts to grow.

Plus, they are packed in fibre, protein, essential nutrients, and enzymes. Sprouts are tasty, and great for you.

A word of caution, though: sprouting seeds require a certain amount of humidity, a condition in which bacteria thrive in.

According to, there have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with sprouts since 1996.

One way to try to reduce the risk of illness is to cook the sprouts, which, hopefully, will kill all of the bacteria.

Sprouts are used in a number of dishes, mostly for their textural contrast as opposed to their visual appeal. They’re relatively mild in flavor.

Tiny little baby microgreens

Microgreens are the result of the cotyledon growth stage, which is when the first couple of leaves from a plant appear.

The “cotyledon” usually becomes the plants’ first set of leaves. They’re formed in the seed, and function in the same way as leaves do when it comes to photosynthesis—both convert light energy into chemical energy that the plant will use to grow.

The leaves and stems can generally be eaten, and the seeds are started in soil or peat moss, as opposed to in water like sprouts. The soil is what gives the plants nutrients.

They take a little longer to grow, around one to three weeks, depending on the plant. The seed, unlike sprouts, cannot be eaten as it’s in soil.

Micros also require lots of light and good air ventilation, just like when you grow any plant in- or outdoors.

Microgreens shouldn’t be confused with baby greens. Baby greens don’t really fit into any growing stage in particular; they’re the leafy plants that are harvested before they’re really, truly mature.

So, they’ve developed their first set of true leaves, but they’re not quite as big as they could be yet.

In terms of flavor, microgreens carry the most when compared to their younger selves (sprouts) and older siblings (baby greens or full-grown vegetables).

Many studies have also shown that, depending on the variety, microgreens are more concentrated in nutritional value than their mature counterparts.

In short

To sum it up, here are the differences between microgreens and sprouts:

  • Microgreens are grown in soil; sprouts germinate in water
  • The leaves and stems of microgreens can be eaten; the “stem” and seed of sprouts can be eaten
  • Microgreens take around one to three weeks to grow, depending on the variety; sprouts take under a week to grow
  • Microgreens are packed with flavor and are often used as garnishes; sprouts are great for crunch

Hopefully, this helped dispel some misconceptions and confusion regarding microgreens and sprouts.

Urban Cultivator units grow microgreens, and because of the machines’ automated functions, the grow times are shortened, meaning you can harvest delicious greens quicker.

To learn more about microgreens, and why you should care, read this.

Next time someone asks about “sprouts,” you’ll know if to ask if they really mean microgreens!

8 Tips for Planting Fall Alfalfa

“Alfalfa is a three- to five-year, or longer, investment and therefore it is crucial to ensure proper establishment,” they write in a recent edition of K-State’s Extension Agronomy newsletter. “Some producers shy away from alfalfa because of its high establishment cost and risk of stand failure. In the long run, however, it’s relatively inexpensive, if amortized over the life of the crop. If managed properly and given favorable weather conditions, dryland alfalfa can produce 3 to 6 tons of forage per acre per year. Irrigated fields can produce 8 tons per acre per year or more.”

Lollato and Min say farmers should consider the following eight tips to optimize their alfalfa:

1. Soil test and correct soil acidity. Add lime to get soil pH to 6.8 before you plant.

2. Soil test and meet fertilization needs. Consider adding 15 to 20 lbs. per acre of N as a starter at planting. Watch P levels below 25 ppm and K levels below 120 ppm.

3. Plant certified, inoculated seed.

4. Plant in firm, moist soil. Planting no-till in small-grains stubble usually provides a good seedbed.

5. Don’t plant too deeply. (Less than 10 times the seed diameter is a good rule of thumb.)

6. Use the right seeding rate. Check your state university’s recommendations. Even in Kansas, seeding rates range from 8 lbs. per acre to 20 lbs. per acre depending on irrigation and soil type.

7. Check for herbicide carryover that could damage the new alfalfa crop. This is especially true following corn or grain sorghum.

8. Choose pest-resistant varieties. Pay attention to ratings against phytophthora root rot, bacterial wilt, fusarium wilt, anthracnose, spotted alfalfa aphid and others.

For more resources, including an alfalfa production handbook, click here.


Jimmy C. Henning and C. J. Nelson
Department of Agronomy

Alfalfa is the most productive legume for Missouri, with potential yields exceeding six tons of hay per acre on good soils. Unlike red or white clover, established alfalfa is productive during midsummer except during extreme drought. Alfalfa is a tap-rooted crop and can last five years and longer under proper management. Whether grazed or fed as hay, alfalfa is an excellent forage for cattle and horses.

More than 400,000 acres of alfalfa are harvested annually in Missouri, averaging about three tons of hay per acre. Alfalfa as a cash hay crop could produce more than $60 million each year. To realize this potential, you should plant a productive, disease-resistant variety that is adapted to Missouri conditions. Once established, good management practices are necessary to ensure high yields and stand persistence. These practices include timely cutting at the proper growth stage; control of insects, diseases and weeds; and replacement of nutrients removed in the forage. Alfalfa has superior forage quality when managed properly. The major problems are getting a stand and keeping it productive. These factors are stressed in this publication.

Site selection and soil fertility

Alfalfa is best adapted to deep, fertile, well-drained soils with a salt pH of 6.0 to 6.5, but it can be grown with conservative management on more marginal soils. On sites that have more moderate drainage, you should also seed a grass, such as orchardgrass or bromegrass, with alfalfa to reduce winter heaving of the alfalfa. The grass acts as a mulch during winter to reduce variations in soil temperature, which cause repeated freezing and thawing. Grasses also help prevent weed invasion by filling in spaces between alfalfa crowns.

Alfalfa requires high levels of fertility for establishment, especially phosphorus. Soil should be tested six to 12 months ahead of planting to determine proper amounts of fertilizer and agricultural lime for successful establishment. Soil salt pH should be 6.0 or above, which allows for good nodulation by the plant use. Disk or plow down any needed limestone six to 12 months before seeding to give time for it to react in the soil and raise the salt pH.

In no-till seedings, apply needed lime a year in advance, because it cannot be incorporated. After two years of production, take another soil sample to determine if the soil needs additional limestone or fertilizer. Top-dressing limestone or fertilizer helps maintain production potential and ensures stand longevity.

Adequate available phosphorus is a key to establishing a vigorous stand of alfalfa. Phosphorus stimulates root growth for summer drought resistance, winter survival and quick spring growth. Many Missouri soils are low in phosphorus and may require 60 to 100 pounds of phosphate per acre for establishment. On a Howell County site that was low in phosphorus, plowing down 160 pounds of phosphate per acre increased hay yields in the seeding year by 2.4 tons per acre (Table 1). Yield response to phosphate in no-till alfalfa is generally lower than in conventionally tilled situations in the seeding year. You can use no-till drills with large and small seed boxes to drill 30 to 40 pounds per acre of phosphate (large box) along with the seed (small box) when planting into soils low in phosphorus.

Table 1
Alfalfa response to phosphorus (Howell County)

114 percent moisture

Nitrogen and potash are not as important as phosphorus for alfalfa establishment, but they are needed in small amounts. Soil test recommendations normally suggest 20 to 30 pounds of nitrogen at seeding along with 20 to 60 pounds of potash. The fertilizers should be worked into the soil to prevent direct contact with germinating seed.

Researchers recommend applying 20 to 30 pounds nitrogen for fall and early spring plantings to stimulate growth before development of nitrogen-fixing root nodules. You should not fertilize late spring seedings with nitrogen because of the potential for increased weed competition.

Variety selection

Several varieties of alfalfa are available, but a limited number are adapted to Missouri. There is no single “best” variety for a particular location. The most recommended varieties are those that are consistently high yielding, moderately winter hardy and have moderate or higher resistance to bacterial wilt, phytophthora root rot and anthracnose.

Each year, researchers test several varieties of alfalfa for yield at locations in northern, central and southern Missouri. The results are published in the Missouri Crop Performance: Forage, Special Report number 351, which is available at your local MU Extension center. This report also contains descriptions of disease resistance for tested varieties.

Some varieties are bred especially for creeping growth habit. These plants have the ability to spread laterally from the crown, which should lead to improved persistence. These varieties, however, generally are lower yielding than conventional varieties and have low levels of disease resistance.


Alfalfa may be frost-seeded, broadcast, no-tilled or drilled into a prepared seedbed. You should frost-seed in January or February to allow freezing and thawing to work the seed into the soil. Planting into killed vegetation using no-till techniques or into a prepared seedbed involves less risk of failure and produces denser, more uniform stands than frost-seeding.

Whether planting no-till or into a prepared seedbed, place seed no more than one-fourth inch deep for maximum emergence. With a prepared seedbed, the soil should be very firm to ensure good soil to seed contact. When broadcasting, you should firm the field with a cultipacker or roller before and after planting. Seeding with a Brillion-type seeder, which has a pair of heavy packing rollers, is ideal. Drills that are capable of precise seed depth control and have press wheels to firm the seedbed are also excellent.

In dry years, getting a firm seedbed is critical for seedling survival. In dry years, seedlings germinate and then die in a loose seedbed because water does not move up to the upper soil layer where the young roots are. A good rule of thumb is to firm the seedbed after planting to the point that an average person leaves a footprint less than one-fourth inch deep.

Alfalfa planted into killed, un-tilled sod is subject to stand reduction and loss of vigor from soil insects. Apply granular insecticide in the furrow or liquid formulations broadcast at planting to control soil insects. Consult your local MU Extension center for current recommendations on labeled insecticides and rates. Do not seed alfalfa into killed sod without using a soil insecticide.

You can plant alfalfa in early spring or late summer north of the Missouri river. Late summer seedings are not recommended south of the Missouri river in areas where sclerotinia crown and stem rot has occurred (section on diseases). A pre-emergence herbicide, for example EPTC, is recommended for spring seedings of pure alfalfa into a prepared seedbed . Spring seedings made with a herbicide can produce two to three cuttings of quality forage by Sept. 15. There are no pre-emergence herbicides for alfalfa-grass mixtures or alfalfa seeded with a companion crop.

You should complete spring seedings by late March or early April in southern Missouri and by mid-April in northern Missouri so seedlings are well developed before the hot, dry summer. You should make late summer seedings in late August or early September so the seedlings become winter-hardy.

Companion crop
Alfalfa is often fall-seeded with small grains such as wheat, oats and barley. Otherwise, alfalfa is broadcast into these crops during winter. The companion crop prevents excessive soil erosion, decreases weed problems, protects young alfalfa seedlings and provides some early spring forage before the alfalfa becomes productive. Use one bushel per acre in either fall or spring plantings. Although beneficial, the small grain companion crops also compete for light, water and soil nutrients. Harvest the companion crop for hay or silage no later than the boot stage to minimize competition. Alfalfa often provides one hay cutting in late August to early September when seeded with a companion crop.

Seeding rates and mixtures
When seeded alone, use 15 pounds per acre of certified seed, which is about the equivalent of 13 pounds per acre of pure, live seed (PLS). When seeded with a grass, 10 pounds per acre of bulk alfalfa seed (equal to eight pounds per acre PLS) is sufficient. Seeding rates for grasses in an alfalfa grass mixture are: bromegrass — 10 pounds bulk (eight pounds PLS); orchardgrass — six pounds bulk (four pounds PLS); tall fescue — 10 pounds bulk (eight pounds PLS); or reed canarygrass — six pounds bulk (four pounds PLS) per acre.

Seeding a cool-season grass with alfalfa decreases the potential for heaving, reduces weed competition, lessens damage to soil structure by grazing animals, and reduces bloat potential when grazed. The grass will decrease forage quality but will be a major component in the first cutting only.

Make decisions about whether to include a grass based on the intended market or use of the alfalfa and on the winter-heaving potential of the site. If intended for dairy use or sale to a cubing plant, seed pure alfalfa. For grazing, beef, or horse use, an alfalfa-grass mixture is best. On sites that have a high clay content subject to heaving, alfalfa-grass mixtures are recommended.

Maintaining alfalfa stands

Proper management can allow Missouri growers to maintain a productive stand of alfalfa for five or more years. An annual fertility program and proper harvesting management are major factors determining stand productivity and longevity. Insects, diseases and weeds are problems that can reduce yields and length of stand.

Most alfalfa seedings initially have 15 or more plants per square foot. As the stand ages, some plants die and remaining plants spread to occupy the space. MU research shows that pure stands with three or more plants per square foot can maintain high productivity. Alfalfa-grass mixtures can maintain productivity with only two alfalfa plants per square foot.

Annual fertilization
Annual applications of phosphorus, potash, boron and sometimes lime are necessary to maintain vigorous, productive stands. To avoid nutritional deficiencies, apply fertilizer each year according to soil tests. Missouri research has shown that even 6- to 10-year-old alfalfa stands can have three or more plants per square foot and produce high hay yields when you follow a program of proper annual fertilization.

Phosphorus fertilization of established stands keeps plants vigorous so that high yields can be maintained over time. Applications of phosphorus resulted in one to two more plants per square foot and almost double the number of stems per plant after five years in a Howell County study (Table 1).

Potash application improves winter survival of plants and lengthens the productive life of the stand. Where no potash was top-dressed for five years after establishment, plant density was reduced to less than three plants per square foot (Table 2). Alfalfa stands with fewer than three plants per square foot cannot maintain high yields and are often subject to increased weed invasion.

Table 2
Alfalfa response to potassium (Howell County)

Annual fertilizer recommendations vary according to phosphorus and potassium levels in the soil, but will be close to 15 pounds phosphate and 55 pounds potash per ton of expected yield. You can apply fertilizer at any time. A single application following the first cutting or a split application following the first and third cuttings are both good options. Split applications are useful for irrigated alfalfa, for high-yielding alfalfa stands or when applying high rates of potash (more than 300 pounds potash annually).

You should include boron in the top-dress fertilizer at a rate of one pound of boron per acre per year. Boron is toxic to seedlings, so you should not apply it at seeding.

Soil test every two to three years to make sure that soil salt pH, phosphorus and potassium levels are adequate. Top-dress additional lime as needed to keep the salt pH above 6.0.

Harvest management
Stage of maturity at harvest determines hay quality and affects stand life. Forage quality (protein, energy value) declines rapidly as the plant begins to flower.

For spring-seeded established stands in the seeding year, take the first harvest at the mid- to full-bloom stage. Make following harvests as flowers begin to appear.

For established stands, take the first (May 10 to 20) and second (June 15 to 25) cuttings when the plants are just beginning to bloom. For persistence of the stand, make two more harvests at about 35-day intervals before Sept. 15. Do not cut or graze between Sept. 15 and Nov. 1 to allow the plant to store root reserves to overwinter. After Nov. 1, you can take or graze a fifth cutting if the soil is well drained or a grass is used to help prevent winter heaving. With a four-cut system, a properly fertilized stand can last six or more years.

Harvesting alfalfa in the bud stage produces five cuttings of high-quality hay before Sept. 15. This practice, however, reduces stand life to three or four years.

You can graze alfalfa without a loss of stand using small pasture units and high stocking rates. Use enough animals to remove most topgrowth in less than six to 10 days. Turn animals onto the alfalfa when alfalfa is in the bud stage. Allow the alfalfa to regrow for 30 to 35 days. Reduce the chance of bloating by using poloxalene (bloat-inhibitor) blocks. Don’t turn hungry animals onto lush alfalfa pastures.


The alfalfa weevil and potato leafhopper are the two major pests of alfalfa in Missouri. Regular monitoring of alfalfa fields is the best way to prevent economic injury from insects. Spray or cut when insect populations reach economic thresholds, not after insect injury symptoms are apparent.

Alfalfa weevil adults lay eggs in the older alfalfa stems in late fall and early spring, and the larva damage mainly the first cutting. Use chemical insecticides when 25 percent of the tips are skeletonized and if there are three or more larvae per stem. Instead of spraying, cut the alfalfa when it is in the bloom stage, scouting regrowth for signs of damage. In general, experts recommend chemical control of the weevil.

Potato leafhoppers migrate to Missouri in June from southern states. The immature or nymph stage stunts plants and yellows leaves. It also lowers yield and protein content by sucking juices from young upper stems. Leafhopper numbers can be large enough to warrant treatment before significant leaf yellowing occurs. Population thresholds for chemical control vary with plant height.

Weed control
Weed control in alfalfa begins with establishing a uniform dense stand of alfalfa or alfalfa/grass. Experts recommend a pre-plant incorporated herbicide for conventional spring seedings of pure alfalfa. If you want a grass in spring-seeded alfalfa, plant the alfalfa alone using a pre-plant herbicide. Drill the grass into the alfalfa stand the following spring. Numerous diskings during mid to late summer give adequate control for late summer seedings.

Control of weeds after alfalfa emergence depends on the individual weeds, the stage of growth of the alfalfa and whether there is a grass with the alfalfa. Several herbicides control weeds in pure stands of alfalfa, but only a few are available for use in alfalfa/grass stands.

Alfalfa in Missouri is subject to several diseases, including phytophthora root rot, bacterial wilt, anthracnose and sclerotinia root and crown rot. Because no labeled chemical control methods exist for use after a disease is found, the best control is prevention. Choose a variety with a high level of resistance to phytophthora, bacterial wilt and anthracnose. There is no varietal resistance to sclerotinia.

Sclerotinia is particularly damaging to fall-seeded alfalfa stands south of the Missouri river. The disease has killed seedling stands, and older stands are also subject to damage. Cultural controls include deep tillage of alfalfa residue to bury the inoculum that is formed in the spring on infected alfalfa. In southern Missouri, seed alfalfa in spring only, particularly in and around fields where sclerotinia has been a problem in the past. A less practical control is to maintain a three- to four-year interval between forage legumes in a rotation. Red and white or ladino clovers are also hosts of sclerotinia and can be a source of inoculum for subsequent alfalfa crops.

The authors wish to thank Daryl Buchholz for his assistance with alfalfa fertility management, and John A. Jennings and Einar Palm for their comments regarding sclerotinia stem and crown data.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *