GRAZING ALFALFA 

AUTHOR:
Steve Freeman

I recently attended a conference for dairy graziers and was somewhat surprised when one of the speakers spent a considerable amount of time explaining all the ways necessary to avoid bloat in cattle when grazing alfalfa.

We’ve been grazing beef steers and heifers on alfalfa for 15-18 years and have only lost 2-3 head to bloat. That means thousands of head grazing alfalfa and only a small handful bloating. The extra gains have easily paid for the death loss we’ve incurred. We have become a little nonchalant about the bloat concern, but realize that our success could easily be luck and don’t want to minimize the real possibility of it happening in a hurry to us or someone else.

Grazing-Alfalfa_Jim-Freeman

Possible reasons why we have experienced so few cases of bloating:

Alfalfa is often grazed after it’s peak nutritional and bloat causing time. In our grazing system we often have fairly long intervals between grazings so the cattle usually don’t come back to a field until the alfalfa has flowered.

Alfalfa fields are not pure alfalfa. They contain several cool season grasses as well as chicory and ladino clover. Of course ladino clover also is known for causing bloat, but it sure grows well with the alfalfa.

We use fairly high density [40-80,000#] per acre per day. Higher densities means cattle eat more quickly and are not able to pick and choose so they don’t have time to gorge just on the alfalfa leaves.

Though we don’t usually graze alfalfa at it’s highest nutritional peak, the gains are often impressive and our stands are long lived. This fall, just before shipping a potload of 750 steers we grazed them through one of the cells full of alfalfa for 21 days. The steers averaged over 3lbs. a day gain and ended up weighing a little over 800lbs when sold.