Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a flowering plant in the pea family Fabaceae cultivated as an important forage crop. In the UK, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand it is known as lucerne and as lucerne grass in south Asia. It resembles clover with clusters of small purple flowers.
Alfalfa is a cool season perennial legume which can live more than twenty years, depending on variety and climate.
The plant grows to a height of up to 1 metre (3 ft), and has a deep root system sometimes stretching more than 15 metres (49 ft).This makes it very resilient, especially to droughts. It has a tetraploid genome.
This plant exhibits autotoxicity, which means that it is difficult for alfalfa seed to grow in existing stands of alfalfa. Therefore, it is recommended that alfalfa fields be rotated with other species (for example, corn or wheat) before reseeding.
Alfalfa is widely grown throughout the world as forage for cattle, and is most often harvested as hay, but can also be made into silage, grazed, or fed as greenchop.
Alfalfa has the highest feeding value of all common hay crops, being used less frequently as pasture. When grown on soils where it is well-adapted, alfalfa is the highest yielding forage plant.
Its primary use is as feed for dairy cattle—because of its high protein content and highly digestible fiber—and secondarily for beef cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. Humans also eat alfalfa sprouts in salads and sandwiches.
Dehydrated alfalfa leaf is commercially available as a dietary supplement in several forms, such as tablets, powders and tea. Alfalfa is believed by some to be a galactagogue, a substance that induces lactation.
Like other legumes its root nodules contain bacteria, Sinorhizobium meliloti, with the ability to fix nitrogen, producing a high-protein feed regardless of available nitrogen in the soil. Its nitrogen-fixing abilities (which increases soil nitrogen) and its use as an animal feed greatly improved agricultural efficiency.
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