In Europe Alfalfa is always called Lucerne. The origin of this word is uncertain. It has nothing to do with the Swiss state as the name was used before the plant was known in Switzerland. It is not likely that it was derived from the Lucerna valley in northern Italy, as is generally assumed by American authors. An old Spanish name for the plant is "Userdas," which is possibly identical with the name "Louzerdo," used in southern France. More likely the name Lucerne comes from "lucerno," which is an old Provencal word.
Varieties: A great many varieties of Alfalfa occur in the trade, some of which are real botanical varieties; that is, they can be distinguished by fixed botanical characteristics. Turkestan Alfalfa, for instance, has short, round leaflets and dull seeds. Others are only geographical varieties; their names merely signify that the seed has been grown in a certain country. Several, however, show decidedly practical qualities, such as hardiness, resistance to drought and disease, stooling power, seed production, etc. For Canada only hardy varieties are of importance. Arabian or Peruvian Alfalfa, for instance, will be winter-killed, and, generally speaking, varieties of a southern origin will suffer. When buying seed the farmer should therefore make sure that the variety offered him is suitable for the climate. It is always advisable to choose a variety grown in a country with a climate similar to that where the plant is to be grown.
Cultural conditions: The proper development of Alfalfa largely depends on the soil. It can be grown on many kinds, from sand or sandy loams to heavy clays. It thrives best in deep loams with open porous subsoil where the taproots are not hindered. As the roots penetrate to a considerable depth, the quality of the subsoil is of great importance. If it is compact and impenetrable it will be a serious obstacle to successful Alfalfa growing. For the same reason, there is little chance of a good stand on shallow soil on rock unless the roots can find their way through cracks. Alfalfa will stand a certain amount of alkali in the ground, but it should be leached out from the surface before the seed is sown, and afterwards should be kept from five to six feet below by irrigation. Acidity-has always a detrimental influence. Where the soil is sour, an application of lime will prove beneficial.
Climate: As the roots go deep, Alfalfa, although dwarfed in growth, is not seriously affected by severe drought. It likes a reasonable amount of moisture but is sensitive to an excess. If the subsoil is impervious, so that after a heavy rain the surface water cannot drain off rapidly, the accumulation will prove disastrous or will at least reduce the vitality of the plants. The soil must therefore be kept well drained, especially in early spring. In poorly drained fields, Alfalfa will be injured and sometimes killed in the low spots where water has accumulated. An excess of water in the ground will at least keep the plants back and prevent them from making an early start. Where the drainage is poor, alternate freezing and thawing does more harm than in well drained land as the heaving of the soil injures the root system. The strain is often so great that the taproot is ruptured and the plant dies.
Inoculation: Like other leguminous plants, Alfalfa depends for its vigorous development on the bacteria in the nodules of the roots, which are closely related to, or perhaps identical with, those on Sweet Clover; it thrives well on soil where Sweet Clover has been grown.
Habits of growth: Alfalfa is generally sown in the spring. The young plants are delicate and succeed best where there is no competition. The land should therefore be as free as possible from weed seeds. As the plants are rather tender the first year, they should be given every chance to become as strong as possible to withstand the winter. It is therefore not advisable to cut or pasture Alfalfa the first season. During the second and following years the growth starts early and continues until late in the fall, new branches developing from the crown of the root. Under favourable conditions Alfalfa reaches a great age and gives large returns.
Agricultural value: The feeding value of Alfalfa was recognized in Persia long before the Christian era and it was highly esteemed by the Arabians. At present no fodder plant is known which can compete with it in nutritive value and general importance for feeding. It is relished by all kinds of stock, horses, cattle, sheep and hogs eating it with eagerness. Even Red Clover is inferior to it in nutritive value, the protein content being greater in Alfalfa. It can be fed to greatest advantage to dairy cattle but is also important for fattening all kinds of farm animals, especially sheep and hogs.
Fodder: Farmers sometimes say that Alfalfa does not make good hay, but such statements are usually the result of cutting at the wrong time. Its value for hay depends upon its nutritive value and its power of producing a number of crops in the season. As with most forage plants, the quality rapidly deteriorates after the plants have begun to blossom. The stems then lose their succulence, become hard and woody, and the leaves are apt to fall off. When the plants begin to form their blossoms, new secondary stems are developed from buds at the crown. As it is upon this secondary growth that the second cutting depends, the first cutting must be done before the secondary stems have grown tall enough to be cut off by the mower. For this reason it is advisable to cut a little earlier than the nutritive value and yield of the hay demand. If it is cut at the beginning of the flowering period, the yield of the first crop will be a little lessened, but the second growth will develop more quickly and the return will be greater. Early cutting gives a greater total crop of better hay than late cutting. Where the season is long and the weather favourable, five or six cuttings a year can be secured. In northern countries such as Canada, two or three cuttings a year may be expected. In irrigated districts or in places where haymaking time is dry, it is not difficult to cure Alfalfa into bright green hay of excellent quality. Where rains or heavy dews are frequent after cutting, the hay is apt to turn yellow or brown. Its nutritive value is considerably lessened and its palatability lost. Curing is generally done in the same way as for Red Clover. Alfalfa should, however, be handled more carefully, as the leaves easily fall off and their shattering causes a considerable loss of fodder.