Penn State
ForagesPeopleTopicsResourcesSelection ToolContact Info

Topics : Pastures : Grazing Alfalfa

Grazing Alfalfa

Additional pasture information via the Forage Information System (FIS)

Alfalfa Grazing Periods

Alfalfa or alfalfa-grass mixtures can be grazed throughout the growing season in most areas, or can be used for grazing during only selected seasons.

Spring Grazing - Grazing alfalfa for several weeks in the very early spring delays hay making until weather is better. Begin grazing when alfalfa is about six inches tall, managing the animals so that the plants are not overgrazed and maintain some leaf area. As the alfalfa growth begins to exceed animal consumption (usually during May) periodically reduce the size of pasture area being grazed. This decreases the amount of forage available to the animals and reduces waste. In addition, it establishes staggered pasture heights for rotational grazing throughout the rest of the season. Harvest the excess, ungrazed alfalfa as hay or silage.

Summer Grazing - Alfalfa can be difficult to harvest for hay during July and August if top growth has been slowed by drought. Grazing may be an attractive alternative to alfalfa hay harvesting during this period.

Rotational grazing during the summer will seldom harm the stand. Grazing alfalfa during times of moisture stress does not have the adverse effects to the degree it does when grazing under normal or wet conditions. Grazing is an excellent way to use alfalfa and provide high quality forage during the dry summer months in what normally would be considered the "summer slump" period.

Fall Grazing - Fall alfalfa growth usually is slowed or stopped by a series of light frosts, rather than by one single heavy killing freeze. Forage quality of fall growth is excellent. Weather conditions normally make alfalfa hay difficult to cure at this time, so grazing becomes an alternative method of harvesting. Removing this fall growth also may reduce the severity of the alfalfa weevil the following spring.

However, it is important not to graze too hard within five to six weeks of the first killing frost. While the stubble height or cutting height is not of great significance during the summer, it becomes an important factor when fall grazing. Leave some stubble on the field to support any growth that may occur before a killing frost and to hold snow to protect alfalfa from heaving. Leave at least a 4-inch stubble!

Season-long Grazing - Grazing has a reputation for shortening the life of an alfalfa stand, compared to harvesting for hay. However, this is largely a misconception because there are management techniques that can take advantage of the benefits of grazing alfalfa, while reducing some of the potentially harmful effects. Follow the suggestions for spring grazing, outline above, to initiate season-long alfalfa grazing. Alfalfa should be allowed to recover for about 28 to 35 days between grazings. Rotational grazing for short grazing periods of 1 to 2 days with the long recovery period of approximately 35 days is the major key to season-long grazing, while still maintaining stands. Avoid grazing during wet weather when alfalfa is particularly susceptible to soil compaction and crown damage.