Fall grazing of alfalfa can provide a cheap feed source for cattle producers. However, several management practices should be followed. One of the first things that come to mind with cattle grazing alfalfa is bloat. No doubt this is a huge factor that can make cheap feed expensive.
Good management can reduce the likelihood of bloat. Since we are in the season of frost, we should look at this concern first. If you place cattle in fields that has not yet frozen then close attention to the weather must take place. After a frost or freeze the cell walls in the alfalfa plant rupture and increase the release of soluble protein in the plant thence increasing the chances of bloat in cattle. If a frost/freeze occurs when cattle are grazing alfalfa cattle should be pulled immediately. Producers need to wait a minimum of three days or longer after a frost or freeze before putting cattle back on the field.
This should allow the plant to start drying down before any cattle are placed back on the alfalfa. Likewise, if it was not a complete killing freeze and just a frost, each subsequent frost or freeze needs to be monitored for additional plant damage.
Other management Do's and Don'ts to fall grazing alfalfa:
- Wait until alfalfa is in full bloom or mature to graze to reduce bloat incidence.
- Feed bloat-preventing compounds, such as poloxalene, for several days before and after the start of grazing alfalfa.
- Fill up cattle with good quality grass hay before moving out to alfalfa fields.
- Move cattle into the alfalfa in the afternoon.
- Monitor grazing several times (minimum of 2-3) times per day for the first 3 days for bloat incidences and then once a day preferable midmorning.
- Have an escape pasture in case conditions arise that cattle have to be moved promptly.
- Do not turn hungry cattle into alfalfa.
- Do not move cattle onto alfalfa first thing in the morning. Wait until late morning or afternoon.
- Do not leave cattle on alfalfa fields that just had a frost or freeze the night before.
In addition to feed savings during the fall/winter months, grazing after frost helps control insects. If alfalfa weevils are a problem then grazing can help control them. The eggs in the stems are consumed, reducing the number of eggs available for hatching the following spring. However, caution should be taken if weather conditions change from dry to wet as grazing alfalfa in wet, muddy conditions can cause damage to the plant's crown. Damaging the crown can reduce production in future years.
Grazing alfalfa in the fall/winter can be a cost savings on feed supplies, but strict management must occur to prevent death loss.