Crop production: Lucerne – top-quality feed for your animals

Growing lucerne is a cost-effective way of producing feed and grazing. The crop can survive the harshest drought conditions and, unlike other crops, can be cut throughout the growing season.

Here is how you can grow a productive lucerne crop, which is mostly planted in May and June.

Lucerne has a high yield and can be planted in many soil types and climates. The crop can survive the harshest drought conditions, because it has a strong taproot which can access water up to 6 metres deep.


  • For the best possible production, well-drained soil is needed.
  • If the soil is waterlogged, seedling diseases can easily develop.
  • These will reduce yields and cause the plant to spread too thinly.
  • Poor drainage also lowers the quantity of soil oxygen that reaches the roots.

In spite of these challenges, you should consider including lucerne in your feeding programme, as it is a reliable and economical source of protein for grazing animals.


Because of its ability to grow in various climatic conditions, scientists have developed cultivars that have different classes of “dormancy”.

  • A plant is dormant when it is not growing.
  • The higher the rate of a cultivar’s dormancy, the greater its ability to conserve energy.
  • These cultivars could benefit your business, as the yield will be more predictable.
  • Before planting, think about the type of cultivar you want to plant.
  • Get advice on whether it will grow well in your area.
  • More dormant cultivars offer better protection for the crown of the plant and are thus more resistant to crown and root diseases.


  • Many farmers make the mistake of not preparing seedbeds properly before sowing.
  • Soil must be at least 1.2 m deep to hold enough water.
  • Medium to deep soil with a clay content of not more than 35% is best.
  • This type of soil is found beside streams and rivers.
  • Loosen the soil with a plough and remove the weeds.
  • Before planting the soil should have a fine texture, but it should not look “powdery”.
  • Roll the planting area to ensure a firm seedbed with no clods.
  • If you walk on the land, you should not sink in deeper than the soles of your shoes.
  • You can sow the seeds by hand or using a planter.
  • If done by hand, you must cover the seed with soil as soon as possible.
  • Use a chain or an upside-down harrow with the front end 5 cm above the soil surface.
  • Then use a roller to compact the soil.
  • If you use a planter, spread the seed evenly in rows.
  • This method is more cost-effective, requires less seed per hectare and the lucerne will have a longer lifespan.
  • Lucerne seed is small and should be planted shallowly, but still be covered with soil.
  • There are about 440 000 seeds per kilogram.
  • If you sow under dryland conditions, three to seven kilograms per hectare is recommended. Under irrigation, 18 to 20 kilograms per hectare should be adequate.
  • About 60% of the seeds should germinate.
  • It is normal for about 60% to 80% of the seedlings to die within the first year.


  • Good soil nutrition will improve productivity by helping the seedlings to take root and grow quickly.
  • You should consult an expert about your fertilisation programme and recommended nutrient levels.
  • Apply lime before planting, as this will ensure that seeds take root and that the crop maintains a high yield and quality.
  • Lime will also increase the availability of phosphorus, manganese, calcium and magnesium to the plants.
  • Lime must be applied at least 3 to12 months (or even longer) before sowing.
  • The best time to apply lime is directly after the previous lucerne stand has been removed.
  • You should also apply the following before planting.
  • Phosphorus will improve root growth, flower formation and seed production.
  • As lucerne has a high protein content, it will need a lot of sulphur.
  • Nitrogen will help the crop to survive the first year.
  • An application of weed-free kraal manure will ensure that the crop is well nourished, but you must be careful when applying it as it could burn the leaves of the plant.
  • To prevent damage, spread manure on soil that has the most grass.
  • Do not apply more than 11 500 litres of liquid, or 10 tons of solid, kraal manure per hectare. Use a fertiliser supplement if your crop needs more nutrients.
  • Apply manure immediately after cutting, so that it makes contact with the soil and not the leaves.


  • After sowing, keep the soil moist until the lucerne has emerged.
  • For good production, lucerne requires about 1 200 mm of water a year.
  • The volume of irrigation water should be sufficient to wet the soil thoroughly.
  • Intervals between irrigation should be kept as long as possible.
  • Unlike other crops, such as maize, lucerne is cut throughout the growing season.
  • As water requirements differ according to the season, you will have to adjust the irrigation accordingly.
  • About 150 mm water is needed between cuts, depending on soil and climatic conditions.
  • In winter, there should be a single irrigation just after the last cut and another about 6 weeks before the start of the new growing season.


  • Insects and diseases attack lucerne throughout the year.
  • To prevent decline and damage, inspect your crop regularly for harmful insects.
  • Be on the look-out for beetles, aphids, mites and cater¬pillars.
  • One way to prevent disease is to plant high-quality, disease-resistant seed.
  • Many cultivars offering resistance to a variety of diseases are available.


  • Make sure that there is enough time between grazing periods.
  • The crop needs a rotational grazing system.
  • If the rest period is too short, you could lose some of the plants.
  • If it is too long, there will be a drop in quality because the stem to leaf ratio will be too high. Newly established lucerne should not be grazed.
  • A field should be grazed for 7 to 10 days when the plant is in the late vegetative stage.
  • This should be followed by a rest period of 40 to 50 days before animals are allowed back into the field.
  • Be careful about when you allow animals onto the land.
  • They should not graze on young lucerne.
  • The greatest danger of bloat occurs when the crop is in a vegetative phase, but this drops to low risk when lucerne enters the reproductive (flowering) phase.
  • Bloat is a digestive illness where gas builds up in the rumen and can’t be removed, causing respiratory problems, even death.


  • If lucerne production is very good during the growing season, you can make hay or silage.
  • This will reduce your risks, as you will have a feeding alternative to grazing during the winter months.
  • It also helps you to accumulate fodder that has good nutritional value, which you can sell for an additional income.
  • It is also very cost-effective to grow lucerne as grazing for sheep and cattle, because direct grazing on the land reduces costs.
  • Lucerne can also be included in the ration for dairy cows.
  • The crop has an outstanding protein quality.
  • It also contains many important amino acids that will keep animals such as pigs, poultry, ostriches and horses healthy.

Also read: Livestock production: The secret to making good silage

  • This article was written by Wilma den Hartigh an first appeared in Farming SA.

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