Winter Feed Crops: Lucerne

Before temperatures begin to drop, smallholders should begin to think about the challenges of ensuring adequate nutrition for their poultry and livestock during winter. Lucerne is often called “the king of fodder”, since it yields large volumes of high quality hay which is rich in protein. Preparation of lands for the planting of lucerne should preferably be started well before the expected autumn planting date.
Be sure to buy seed that is winter active.
The seed of lucerne is very fine-grained, and therefore it requires a fine seed-bed. Large clods must be crushed to provide a fine seed-bed. A superior seed-bed will ensure a good stand.
If the soil is very loose, it should be compacted slightly with a roller to ensure better contact between seed and soil.
Lucerne prefers deep, well drained soils which must be free of impervious layers, with a neutral to high pH and no acid saturation. It is a semi-permanent crop which covers the entire soil surface, so it is important to get the planting right first time.
Liming should be done before sowing. During tillage and before sowing is the last chance for relatively insoluble fertilizers such as lime to be well mixed into the soil, so that chemical reactions can release nutrient elements for uptake by the plants. Nutrients that usually need to be supplemented, other than lime, include phosphorus, potassium and sulphur.
It is generally recommended that lucerne be planted in the autumn from March to May to minimise competition with weeds.
Although lucerne has a deep root system and is exceptionally drought resistant, the plant still requires abundant moisture for optimal production. It can be cultivated successfully with either inundation or sprinkle irrigation, and requires about 1,200 mm of water per annum, including rainfall. Irrigation must be adapted to the climate and soil type.
Lucerne is a legume, and in symbiosis with Rhizobium bacteria it can provide for all its own nitrogen needs. Internationally there is a move therefore to inoculate the seed with Rhizobium bacteria before it is planted. This entails swilling the seed with Rhizobium bacteria before it is planted.
A variety of sowing techniques can be employed, but the most common is to use either the old familiar seed-bag, or a fertiliser spreader to scatter the seed. Lucerne seed is expensive and one must avoid sowing too much seed. A suitable amount is 20-25 kg seed per hectare.
After lucerne seed has been scattered, it must be covered with soil by means of a roller or a lucerne rake. In sandy soil it is recommended that seed be covered to a depth of 1-2 cm.
Lucerne hay is cut with an off-set disc mower or sickle bar mower, usually at the early flowering stage. Because it is a soft species prone to crushing if driven over, an offset mower is used so that the tractor’s tyres do not pass over the material before cutting. The cut material is left on the lands for three-four hours to wilt, after which it is raked into windrows to dry. This limits the processes of respiration and the growth of fungus.
After two to four days the lucerne can be baled, and it must be removed from the lands as soon as possible after this. To test if the lucerne is ready to be baled try to remove the skin around the stem of the lucerne plant. If it comes off easily, it is ready for baling. Another way to check: if a wad of lucerne held in one hand can be twisted off easily with the other, this also shows that it is ready for baling.
However, if the number of animals that you are feeding is relatively small and you have the labour, the requisite amount can be cut daily with a sickle.
The potential number of cuts under irrigation can vary from two to twelve per season.
Lucerne is also an outstanding legume for grazing because of its high yield, quality and wide adaptability to different climates and soil types. Lucerne requires a rotational grazing system to ensure good stands which can last for two to three years. It should be grazed as rapidly as possible for seven to ten days when in the late vegetative stage. This should be followed by a rest period of forty to fifty days before animals are again allowed on it.
Lucerne exhibits autotoxicity. In other words lucerne plants produce a chemical(s) which suppress the germination and growth of lucerne seedlings. Therefore, it is recommended that alfalfa fields be rotated with other species (for example, corn) before reseeding. A rotation of 5 years is advised between lucerne crops.