lucerne is also known as alfalfa. It is a perennial crop that belongs to the legumes. It is good when grown as a fodder crop as it has a protein content of about 20%. As protein is one of the limiting factors in animal production, more so dairy farming, if a farmer is able to grow their own protein, they will be at an advantage.
We decided as a farm to try growing lucerne as the first on farm protein source. We went about researching and were able to source seeds.
In as much as lucerne is a very good crop and protein source when grown, establishing it is not very easy. For one the seeds require a fine tilth. This is because the seeds are quite small. Once the land is prepared, the plant requires fertile well drained soils which are not acidic. Most of the soils in Kenya tend to be acidic because of overuse of chemical fertilizers. We planted our lucerne in two seperate plots.
On the first plot, germination was sparse and poor. We came to find out this was because of the acidic soil. Despite ploughing and re-planting the section, the regrowth was not any better. This was also caused by the roots of the germinated plants. They emit some hormone that prevents seeds from growing.
On the other plot the lucerne established well. I think the reason for this was because the land had been fallow for a while. The crop established well and flourished. When the crop is younger, it didn't seem to have any problem, however as it started to flower and grow tall, it started to be affected by rust. This is where the leaves are affected by a fungal disease, turn brown and begin to fall off. As I live in a cool climate, this became a challenge as it meant that the lucerne would need to be sprayed with a fungicide before the flowering stage. The spraying would also need to be done about three times a year as the lucerne can be harvested 3 times a year.
The other problem that we found was damage by wild animals. Hares, deer, monkeys and moles were the most problematic. The moles especially destroyed the roots of the plants and dried up the plants. The others weren't as destructive as they just eat the leaves and reduce yield.
In terms of effectiveness, we saw and increase in milk production when fed to the cows. Since protein is usually a limiting factor in dairy production, any protein that can be fed to the cows cheaply, is a bonus. Store bought dairy supplements like soya meal, corn gluten, sunflower meal and canola meal can be quite expensive. The lower the cost of feeding per unit of milk produced, the better the margins for the farmer.
Lucerne is very palatable to the cows and we have never had an issue with feed intake.
The issues which make lucerne a problem is the fungal disease and the damage from wildlife. The fungal disease is a problem as it increases the cost of producing the lucerne because of spraying of fungicides. The wildlife damage is a problem because of how palatable the lucerne is to them.
Is it worth growing?
Lucerne is a good crop for growing as a protein source for animals as it is very high in protein and usually converts well to either animal growth, for animals for meat, or milk for dairy production.
It also is very productive under the right conditions and is relatively drought resistant. This means that a lot of crop can be harvested for either silage or baling per acre planted.
The only drawback for me was the fungal disease and wildlife damage. A crop like desmodium has better production and has less fungal disease problems and wildlife damage too.
Given the choice for my farm, desmodium is a better choice.