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Topics : Species and Forage Variety Trials : Species Fact Sheets : Alfalfa

Species: Alfalfa

Additional alfalfa information via the Forage Information System (FIS) or Alfalfa Council


Managing Legume Diseases

The following management practices will help minimize disease losses in alfalfa. Most of these recommendations apply to other legumes as well.

1. Use the best-adapted, disease-resistant varieties.

2. Do not plant alfalfa in fields that are poorly drained. Red clover, birdsfoot trefoil, or a grass is a better choice. In fields that are moderate to poorly drained, Phytophthora-resistant varieties should be used along with a fungicide seed or soil treatment.

3. Use a cereal, corn, or grass crop for at least 2 years in rotation with alfalfa.

4. Keep soil pH, phosphorus, and potassium at optimal levels for crop growth.

5. Control leafhoppers, as they interact with diseases.

6. Clean all equipment of plant debris before storing for the winter, as some pathogens that do not survive well in the field survive well on equipment under shelter.

7. Mow youngest stands first. This reduces the spread of pathogens by machinery from older, more diseased stands into healthier, younger stands. • Mow after the dew has dried, as pathogens are easily spread in water films.

8. Mow a few days earlier than usual when stands are hit hard by leaf spots, in order to retain more leaves and reduce inoculum in the field.

9. Maintain a cutting schedule that ensures the recharging of root carbohydrates both during the growing season and prior to fall dormancy.

Wilt diseases can cause severe stand losses in Pennsylvania. Bacterial, Fusarium, and Verticillium wilts occur statewide, with Fusarium wilt worse in the southern counties and Verticillium wilt worse in the northern counties. Resistance to all these wilts is available in current varieties and is needed to obtain maximum production.

Anthracnose is a fungus disease that occurs statewide and is particularly severe in southeastern Pennsylvania. The causal fungus often cannot overwinter in the field, but it does so in infected plant debris on equipment in storage. Therefore, cleaning equipment before storing for the winter helps delay the introduction of this pathogen into young seedlings in spring. Resistant varieties are available and should be used statewide.

Phytophthora root rot can devastate young stands of alfalfa and can cause serious plant loss in older stands. Soils saturated with water for three or more days can trigger a disease outbreak. In perennially wet sites, the use of alternative crops is recommended. The use of resistant varieties, seed treatment with Apron fungicide, or soil treatment with Ridomil fungicide are effective control measures.

Crown and root rot complex, caused by Fusarium spp. plus other fungi and bacteria, is common in alfalfa. Resistant varieties are not available; therefore, growers must depend on proper crop management practices to minimize stress on the plants, which slows down the rate of root rot development. Root-rotting fungi "team up" with root-feeding insects, and root deterioration progresses with increasing stand age.

Aphanomyces root rot is a new disease that is causing establishment problems in other areas. As yet, no outbreaks of the disease have been reported in Pennsylvania, although both strains of the pathogen are known to exist in Pennsylvania soils. This disease is likely to occur under the same wet soil conditions as does Phytophthora, so it is possible that losses caused by this fungus have been occurring but have been attributed to Phytophthora. The fungicide treatments available against Pythium spp. and Phytophthora spp. are not effective against Aphanomyces spp.; however, resistance to one of the strains of the fungus is available in some newer varieties.

Foliar diseases are common in Pennsylvania throughout most of the growing season and can cause significant quality and yield loss through defoliation. When foliar diseases are severe, early mowing helps in leaf retention and reduces inoculum in the field. Some of the current varieties have improved levels of resistance, but all become diseased if favorable moisture and temperatures prevail.

Spring and summer blackstem occur in Pennsylvania, with spring blackstem usually more severe. Leaves, petioles, and stems are attacked, with the spring blackstem fungus also causing crown and root rot. As with other foliar diseases, early harvesting of severely diseased stands can increase leaf retention and reduce inoculum in the field. A few current varieties have improved levels of resistance, but all will become severely diseased if extended moist periods occur.

Nematodes generally do not cause serious problems on alfalfa in Pennsylvania, as long as rotations with corn, cereal, or grass crops are used.

Sclerotinia crown and stem blight can cause seeding failures. Late- summer or early-fall seedings using conservation tillage favor disease development. The infective stage for this disease usually occurs in October, and fall-seeded plants are very susceptible at this time. Because conservation tillage does not bury the fungus, disease severity is often much more severe than in seedings done with conventional tillage. Infected seedlings often survive until spring when the plants die and entire stands may be lost. Spring plantings, because of the plants' increased maturity in the fall, are not as likely to be devastated. Resistant varieties are not available.

Virus diseases are not considered serious on alfalfa in Pennsylvania. Viruses may be present, however, without causing obvious symptoms, and it is possible that viruses contribute to premature stand decline. No resistant varieties are available.