The Grass Guide: Alfalfa

Well-managed alfalfa hay contains high amounts of protein, minerals, and vitamin A, making it very desirable for high-performance animals, such as horses and dairy cattle.

Photo: iStock

Name: Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)
Life Cycle: Cool-season perennial
Native to: Middle East (Iran)
Uses: Hay, haylage, pasture
Identification: Long, narrow leaves in groups of three with serrated edges only at the tip. A purple flower.

This erect-growing legume is one of the most in-demand species for hay production in the United States. Well-managed alfalfa hay contains high amounts of protein, minerals, and vitamin A, making it very desirable for high-performance animals, such as horses and dairy cattle.

Alfalfa is drought-tolerant because it grows a long tap root, enabling it to reach moisture reserves in the ground that many other plants can’t. However, alfalfa can’t tolerate acidic soils and requires a higher level of management than many other types of forage. Alfalfa is generally not recommended for use in horse pastures in the United States because it cannot tolerate frequent close grazing, but is commonly used for pasture in Argentina and Australia under rotational grazing.

Krista Lea, MS, coordinator of UK's Horse Pasture Evaluation Program within the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences; and Ray Smith, PhD, professor and forage extension specialist within UK’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, provided this information.


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