Growing alfalfa as an alternative to grass

By: Chris McCullough, Photography by: Chris McCullough


Recent drought conditions in France have forced many farmers to grow alfalfa as an alternative forage to grass but the benefits of the crop particularly for dairy farms are widespread globally

With temperatures in most of the main farming regions of France hitting 40 degrees Celsius in the past two years creating drought conditions, crops suffered, meaning yields were drastically reduced.

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Eric Masset, president of Luzeal, with some fresh cut alfalfa

Around 80% of the alfalfa in France is grown in the main farming region east of Paris but in all of France, 10,000 farmers grow the crop for themselves or various drying plants operated by co-ops.

In a good year, up to four cuts of alfalfa can be taken annually with a yield of 14 tonnes per hectare from the first cut. That average yield falls with each cut that follows.

One of the main advantages of alfalfa is that it contains 2400kg of protein per hectare, which is much higher than soya at 1000kg to 1500kg of protein per hectare.

Alfalfa gains its high content of nutrients and vitamins due to its deep root system that can extend to over 20 feet deep taking in nutrients unreachable by normal root systems.

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Fourth cut alfalfa being harvested in France

Managing the crop uses very few herbicides, and in France, it’s all non-GMO. Around seven percent of the total production is farmed organically and this figure is growing rapidly.

Alfalfa is normally dried after harvesting to produce high-quality bales or pellets for livestock. This year, demand for bales across Europe was high due to the prolonged periods of drought.

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Alfalfa is around 65% moisture content when harvested

When the alfalfa is harvested the moisture content is around 65% so it’s then sent to the dehydration plants to be dried in a rotary drying drum. 

Hot air currents at 150 degrees Celsius to 650 degrees Celsius generated by coal furnaces dry the crop to around 10% humidity before it’s crushed to be made into pellets or sent uncrushed for baling.

Processing plants

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Harvesting the alfalfa at St Remy on Bussy in France

One of the processing plants that dries alfalfa is based in St Remy on Bussy east of Paris and is owned by the Luzeal Co-op group.

Luzeal was the first French dehydration cooperative to be formed and harvests 35% of the national production of dried alfalfa.

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The Luzeal alfalfa drying plant at St Remy on Bussy

All told, the co-op has five production sites in the north of the Marne and the southern Ardennes and processes more than 21,000 hectares of alfalfa produced by its 1850 members.

A total of 400,000 tonnes of dried product is produced by Luzeal, including 140,000 tonnes of alfalfa pellets. The St Remy on Bussy site harvests 3700 hectares of alfalfa producing around 40,000 tonnes of bales.

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The crop is dried in rotary driers

Eric Masset is both the president of Luzeal and the Coop de France Dehydration and grows alfalfa on his own farm.

"There are a number of benefits in growing alfalfa in terms of the crop’s protein content and environmental advantages," he says. 

"We can successfully grow alfalfa for three consecutive years on the same land before the yields start to decrease. This crop also ensures the lowest bee mortality rate as we leave strips of alfalfa around the outside of the fields.

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Lorries transport the fresh cut alfalfa to the drying plant

"This is a good habitat for the bees and the farmers receive a payment from the European Commission for allowing it to stay," he said. "During subsequent cuts we increase the numbers of strips left to provide even more areas for bee numbers to increase."

Eric runs a 200-hectare farm, of which 15% is used to grow alfalfa and the remainder in a variety of grain crops. He reports some of his grain yields fell this year due to the harsh drought period.

"Our wheat yielded 9.5 tonnes per hectare this year, winter barley was 8.5 tonnes, rapeseed was around three tonnes, and spring barley was eight tonnes per hectare," says Eric.

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The alfalfa is immediately dried after harvesting

"Normally, the alfalfa would yield around 14 tonnes per hectare, but this year being so dry, the average yield was down to 10 tonnes per hectare.

"We harvested each cut after 45 days of growth. When the alfalfa is dried, it can sell for 170 euros per tonne for the pellets and 190 euros per tonne for the bales, which weigh around 380kg to 440kg each," he adds.

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Bales of alfalfa ready to transport to Europe and Saudi Arabia

Luzeal exports around 60 to 70% of the bales it produces to the Benelux countries, Switzerland, Germany, and into Saudi Arabia.

Future of farming

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Alfalfa pellets have a protein content of up to 23%

Farmers who grow alfalfa in France receive a subsidy from the European Parliament of around 10 euros per tonne. In total, French farmers grow in the region of 67,000 hectares of alfalfa each year and receive approximately eight million euros in subsidies for it.

"The future for growing alfalfa in France is very good," says Eric. "Over half the proteins required by livestock farmers in France are grown in France and alfalfa is a key component of that overall production.

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Another load of alfalfa bales are ready for transport to Germany

"As we saw this year with changing climates and a long drought period, alfalfa was a vital crop to produce forage for not only French farmers but also those further afield also affected by dry or drought conditions.

"There’s obviously a big demand for alfalfa from dairy farmers due to the high nutrient value of the crop. However, there’s a growing demand for alfalfa to feed to horses as well.

"Alfalfa pellets are less dusty and are suitable for older horses that have problems with their teeth because the pellets require less chewing than hay."

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