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Bloatless Alfalfa Grazing

Grazing Alfalfa
Grazing Alfalfa

After attending a conference for dairy graziers I was somewhat surprised when one of the speakers spent a considerable amount of time explaining all the ways necessary to avoid bloat in cattle when grazing alfalfa.

We’ve been grazing beef steers and heifers on alfalfa for 15-18 years and have only lost 2-3 head to bloat. That means thousands of head grazing alfalfa and only a small handful bloating.  The extra gains have easily paid for the death loss we’ve incurred.  We have become a little nonchalant about the bloat concern, but realize that our success could easily be luck and don’t want to minimize the real possibility of it happening in a hurry to us or someone else.

Possible reasons why we have experienced so few cases of bloating:

  • Alfalfa is often grazed after its peak nutritional and bloat causing time.  In our grazing system we often have fairly long intervals between grazings so the cattle usually don’t come back to a field until the alfalfa has flowered.
  • Alfalfa fields are not pure alfalfa.  They contain several cool season grasses as well as chicory and ladino clover.  Of course ladino clover also is known for causing bloat, but it sure grows well with the alfalfa.
  • We use fairly high density [40-80,000#] per acre per day.  Higher densities means cattle eat more quickly and are not able to pick and choose so they don’t have time to gorge just on the alfalfa leaves.

Though we don’t  usually graze alfalfa at its highest nutritional peak, the gains are often impressive and our stands are long lived.  This fall, just before shipping a potload of 750 steers we grazed them through one of the cells full of alfalfa for 21 days.  The steers averaged over 3lbs/day gain and ended up weighing a little over 800lbs when sold.

We’re sure there are plenty of you out there grazing alfalfa with no problem.  What are your tips for success?

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  1. I believe genetics are key with bloat issues. Used to have a ton of issues with our large framed mainstream angus cows but have no issues with our red angus “grazing genetics” now. Also feed natural sodium bicarbonate as part of our mineral program.

  2. Does anyone have experience with yellow alfalfa (also called falcata alfalfa)? Supposedly there is a lot lower risk of bloat with it, but there is not any around our area. We are thinking of trying to introduce it, and would like to learn more about it.

  3. In his book ‘Hands on Agronomy pg 176’ Neil Kinsey relates an accouynt where it was found that the farms with good soil phosphate levels loved a new clover while the farms with deficient levels of soil phosphates were more prone to bloat. on a similar note, I now am able to graze high percentage legume pastures at a similar stage of maturity that used to that used to make for killing fields when I was transitioning farmland to perrenial pasture.

  4. Grazing mixes of sainfoin (the new variety called Mountainview developed in Alberta by Dr. Surya Acharya and team is probably best) or cicer milkvetch is becoming more and more popular. The sainfoin needs to be perhaps 30% of the stand and then its tannins prevent the cows from getting bloat. There is all sorts of information available about this on the Internet. Dr. Acharya has rather specific instructions about planting alfalfa and sainfoin. Your could also look up Graeme Finn of Union Forage and find a wealth of information.

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