By Bruce Anderson
Is my alfalfa safe to graze? When I hear that question I can almost imagine the scenarios from which it comes. Usually cornstalks are ready to be grazed. It would be convenient and useful to include an adjacent alfalfa field for extra grazing and protein. Another scenario has grazing ending on summer range but the final growth of alfalfa is still standing in the field.
Usually the alfalfa is still quite green, despite several nights with low temperatures in the 20s or even teens like last week. There may be some wilting and yellowing, especially on the top, but most leaves still are attached to the plant stems.
The real question often being asked is “Can I be sure my cows won’t bloat and die if they graze my alfalfa?” To be quite honest, you never can be 100% certain that alfalfa won’t cause bloat. Back on my father’s small dairy farm, we had a couple cows that would bloat even when eating dry alfalfa hay. Since they were good milkers my Dad didn’t want to cull them. So those cows were hand fed small amounts of alfalfa hay at a time so their bloat could be minimized.
The only true answer to the question of whether alfalfa can be safely grazed is "probably." Bloat risk is much lower a week after a hard freeze that causes wilting; however, always use good animal husbandry methods to reduce the risk further.
- Have cows full before turning out to alfalfa.
- Wait until mid-day, after frost or dew is gone, before turning out.
- Provide other dry, palatable feeds or even bloat retardants.
- Keep a close eye on them for the first couple days.
Alfalfa can be grazed safely. Just be careful and realistic.