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Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Importance of Alfalfa

Alfalfa, called the "Queen of the Forages," is the fourth most widely grown crop in the United States behind corn, wheat and soybeans and double the cotton acreage. Although there is no published value for alfalfa hay the estimated value is $8.1 billion. There are 23.6 million acres of alfalfa cut for hay with an average yield of 3.35 tons per acre. The estimated value of alfalfa hay is $102.50 per ton. Alfalfa meal and cubes are exported to other countries with a value of $49.4 million to the U.S. economy. Alfalfa is sometimes grown in mixtures with forage grasses and other legumes. The acreage of all hay harvested including alfalfa per year is 60.8 million with an estimated value of $13.4 billion. When the value of alfalfa as a mixture with other forages is considered the acreage and value of hay is approximately equal to wheat and soybeans.

Alfalfa seed is primarily grown in the northwestern areas of the U.S. primarily in the states of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming, and Washington. The approximate yield of alfalfa seed in 1999 for the U.S. is 115 million pounds, with average price of $190 per 100 pounds of seed, thus the estimated value of alfalfa seed is $218.5 million. A fringe benefit to the production of alfalfa seed is the production of honey from bees. In the U.S., $147.7 million dollars worth of honey is produced each year.

Alfalfa is also important due to its high biomass production. The record yield of one acre of alfalfa is 10 tons/acre (22 Mg/ha) without irrigation and 24 tons/acre (54Mg/ha) with irrigation. Alfalfa is a widely adapted crop, energy-efficient and an important source of biological nitrogen fixation. The average acre of alfalfa will fix about 200 kg of nitrogen per year, thus reducing the need to apply expensive nitrogen fertilizers.

One of the most important characteristics of alfalfa is it's high nutritional quality as animal feed. Alfalfa contains between 15 to 22% crude protein as well as an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. Specifically, alfalfa contains vitamins A, D, E, K, U, C, B1, B2, B6, B12, Niacin, Panthothanic acid, Inocitole, Biotin, and Folic acid. Alfalfa also contains the following minerals: Phosphorus, Calcium, Potassium, Sodium, Chlorine, Sulfur, Magnesium, Copper, Manganese, Iron, Cobalt, Boron, and Molybdenum and trace elements such as Nickel, Lead, Strontium and Palladium. Alfalfa is also directly consumed by humans in the form of alfalfa sprouts. According to the International Sprout Growers there are approximately $250 million dollars worth of sprouts sold in North America. Alfalfa juice is used in some health food products.

Alfalfa hay is used primarily as animal feed for dairy cows but also for horses, beef cattle, sheep, chickens, turkeys and other farm animals. The value of milk, meat, wool and all other animal products is $132 billion, thus the total value of animal products plus the value of hay reach the $145 billion level. This far exceeds the combined value of all other high value crops.

In addition to the traditional uses of alfalfa as an animal feed, alfalfa is beginning to be used as a bio-fuel for the production of electricity, bioremediation of soils with high levels of nitrogen, and as a factory for the production of industrial enzymes such as lignin peroxidase, alpha-amylase, cellulase, and phytase.

An excellent resource of information on alfalfa is the monograph entitled: Alfalfa and Alfalfa Improvement, edited by A.A. Hanson, D. K. Barnes and R.R. Hill, Jr. and published by The American Society of Agronomy, Monograph number 29, published in 1988. ISBN 0-89118-094-X

The statistics which are used were obtained from the 1998 USDA Agriculture Statistics at the website

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