ASK Jeff: The Rodale Institute’s farm manager, Jeff Moyer, answers your hardcore farming questions

What do I need to do to start alfalfa on pasture land?

Posted January 12, 2007

What Jeff brings to the table

Jeff Moyer, who’s been the farm manager here at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm for more than a quarter of a century, receives lots of mail from farmers just like you asking for advice. Jeff’s hands-in-the-dirt experience over the past 26 years has run the gamut from refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems (including managing 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market) to overseeing The Rodale Institue Farming Systems Trial®, the world’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. We thought it would be fun and informative to share some of these farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and Jeff’s practical wisdom, with our readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Click here to send it to Jeff.

Dear Jeff,

I am wanting to convert 2 or 3 acres of my horse pasture into alfalfa to bale and feed in the winter months. It is slightly rolling central Illinois land with pasture mix grass in it now, and I don't have any farm machinery to work the soil. What would you recommend on how to start alfalfa?

Dean Long

Dear Dean,

Thanks for the question on alfalfa establishment. You are in a bit of a tough situation, although it is one many folks are in as well; that is, wanting to establish hay on small acreage with limited farm machinery resources. Alfalfa is not the easiest crop in the world to establish and the seed is expensive, so you’ll want to give it the best possible chance for survival. That generally means you’ll need to remove the competition from existing plant material. You can do this with tillage. Simply plow the land, turning the sod over and burying the pasture mix. Or, if you are not organic minded, you can clip the pasture mix and spray it with herbicide to kill it. I realize from your initial question that you do not have access to the equipment necessary to accomplish these activities. I suggest you find a neighbor who does and who will work with you to get the alfalfa established.

There are two times of year when you can establish alfalfa; one is in late summer, the other is in very early spring (as a frost seeding—I’ll explain). Late summer seedings (August into early September) are usually done as a straight seeding. Prepare the ground with primary tillage, fit it up with secondary tillage, drill in the alfalfa with a grain drill and, if you are not organic, spray herbicide to hold back the weeds. Organic farmers or farmers who prefer not to use chemicals on their land have a hard time with this time of planting since weed pressure can be tremendous.

Alfalfa is a perennial and as such struggles to establish itself in the early stages of its growth. But once established, it can compete quite well against weed infestations. For that reason, we usually try to establish alfalfa in the early spring by frost seeding it into established wheat or by planting it with a nurse crop of oats. Both of these systems would involve tillage to establish the small grain (wheat in the fall or oats in the spring) which act as a weed suppressant, since they are highly competitive annuals and allow the slow-growing alfalfa to establish as an understory. You’d also need to deal with the small grain, which can be cut while green for feed.

Keep in mind that while alfalfa is a perennial, it will only last for four to five years and then should be rotated with another crop. It is very difficult to re-establish alfalfa directly into a preexisting alfalfa field. For these reasons and the fact that having hay equipment on hand for only 2 or 3 acres is costly, many small landholders find it more economical to purchase hay. When purchasing hay, you have the opportunity to buy only the quality you want (yes, it isn’t cheap) and the advantage of not being stuck with low-quality hay that may have gotten rained on to try and feed to finicky horses.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t grow alfalfa—just be aware of all the options and the work involved. You’ll most likely want to build a relationship with someone who has access to the equipment necessary to do some tillage, or you may be disappointed with results.

Good luck,