ALFALFA 101

This important crop is grown throughout the West for good reasons.

Alfalfa has a variety of roles to play in a water-uncertain future due to its high flexibility during times of both insufficient and excess water. Eliminating its production doesn’t have to be one of them.

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Foundational Crop

Alfalfa is the basis for the West’s beef and dairy production. It is grown as livestock feed for the beef and dairy industries, both of which contribute to a balanced diet.

$7 Billion

Of the $11.5 billion in alfalfa production nationwide, $7 billion is produced in Western states, underlining the significance of the West’s contribution to this important crop. 

Water Efficient

Alfalfa is a very water-efficient crop, using less water than most other crops on a daily basis. Even crops like broccoli, cauliflower and cantaloupes would use a similar amount of water if they were grown year-round.

Environmental Benefits

Alfalfa helps reduce the impacts of climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil and providing habitat for wildlife. Alfalfa fields also contribute to the biodiversity of agricultural systems by serving as habitat for beneficial insects, reducing the reliance on synthetic insecticides.

Alfalfa and Forage Reports

"Our Food Supply at Risk: The Importance of Alfalfa Production in the American West"

Family Farm Alliance and California Farm Water Coalition in 2022 produced a White Paper and a summary detailing the valuable role alfalfa plays as a principal feed source for the nation’s livestock and diary industries, its environmental benefits, and contribution to effective drought management.

“Merits of Alfalfa Production in the Desert Southwest”

Dr. Jeffrey Silvertooth, professor and extension specialist in the Department of Environment Science at the University of Arizona in late 2023 authored this article, which references written testimony presented by the Alliance before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources; Water, Wildlife and Fisheries Subcommittee hearing held in March 2023. Dr. Silvertooth also spoke to the dynamics of the 2024 Western water outlook at the 2023 Western Alfalfa and Forage Symposium, held in Sparks (NEVADA). The proceedings and video for that event can be downloaded HERE.  Hay & Forage Grower magazine in January 2024 published an article summarizing Dr. Silvertooth’s presentation, “The Colorado River conundrum continues”, which can be downloaded HERE.

“Facing the Realities of Water Limitations in Western US for Forage Crops"

Alliance Executive Director Dan Keppen in November 2022 presented this paper to the World Alfalfa Congress conference in San Diego. Check out this article from the March 2023 issue of “Hay and Forage Grower” magazine, which covers Mr. Keppen’s presentation before the 2022 World Alfalfa Congress convention. Many thanks to Mike Rankin, the Managing editor at “Hay and Forage Grower” for permission to share this story.

“Water Rights, Water Quality & Water Solutions in the West”

The July 15, 2023 edition of the Water Report published this featured article by Alliance Executive Director Dan Keppen. This report provides examples of how Western water managers and producers are solving local water challenges, as a growing number of faraway critics downplay and even criticize the importance of using water to produce affordable and safe food and fiber.

Beneficial ‘inefficiencies’ of western ranching: Flood-irrigated hay production sustains wetland systems by mimicking historic hydrologic processes

A new article published in Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment journal on flood-irrigated grass hay and its wetland footprint in the Intermountain West highlights the vital role of working ranches in the resilience and stewardship of riparian systems.
  
This article is just the latest in a 2024 body of science from the Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV), the University of Montana, and other key science partners that shows the outsized ecological effects of flood-irrigated grass hay meadows. 

Alfalfa: A Crop that Feeds our Food

Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard University research institute (among other things), in April 2024 published Alfalfa: A Crop that Feeds our Food. It includes the customary academic efforts to contextualize the plant’s introduction to the Americas as a colonizing influence and ventures into current events on the Colorado River, water policy, and dietary choices, but provides some historical context and discusses some of the advantages of the crop as well.

Alfalfa in the News

Farm Progress Commentary: Hand Wringing Aside, Alfalfa is Here to Stay

The mainstream media continues its obsession with the amount of water that goes to producing alfalfa and other important forage crops in the West… 

Demonizing hay producers in the U.S. Southwest

Media reports naming and shaming individual farm families are truly frightening…

AZ Central Article: Alfalfa is not Arizona's water-use enemy. Why we grow so much of it here

That’s not just a load of hay you see rumbling by on Western highways during summer months. Those hay bales form the foundation of rural agriculture in many Western communities…

Commentary: It's time to stop crop-shaming Western farmers amid drought

Finding solutions to complex problems, like the Colorado River’s dwindling supplies, requires working together, not divisive attacks. Fallowing productive farmland should be a last resort when it comes to America’s food supply.

Commentary: In defense of alfalfa: Important crop gets a bad rap

California is the most populous state in the nation and the nation’s biggest agricultural producer. That combination can occasionally lead to misunderstandings between consumers in cities and suburbs and growers in farming communities.

Can alfalfa survive a fight over Colorado River water?

The dwindling supply of water — which increasingly pits growing Western cities against the farms that use most of the Colorado River water — also puts a spotlight on the choices farmers are making, including what they grow and how they attempt to save water.

Did you know?

 

More honey is made from alfalfa than any other crop.

Western farmers grow alfalfa as a seed crop and the seeds are marketed to other farmers around the world. When alfalfa is grown for seed, it flowers. Alfalfa flowers support pollinators (bees) that are vital to many other crops grown in the West.

Just Seven Western states account for 46.3% of U.S. alfalfa production.

Idaho, California, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Washington, and Texas combined produce almost 19.5 million tons of alfalfa per year, or 46.3% of all alfalfa production in the United States. Irrigated alfalfa in the desert Southwest is much more productive per unit area of land compared to non-irrigated areas.

In recent years, Arizona and California averaged about 7½ tons per acre, the highest in the country and more than twice the national average.