The New Student's Reference Work/Alfalfa
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Alfalfa, from an Arabic word meaning "the best fodder," the Medicago sativa of botanists, is a forage plant belonging to the botanical family Leguminosæ, of which all clovers, beans and peas are examples. It is known by many other names, of which the most common is lucerne; it is a perennial, with powers of indefinite reproduction from one seeding, and fields of it are claimed to have been continuously productive without reseeding for from one to two hundred years or more. It is a smooth, upright, branching plant, with leaves three parted, arranged alternately, and netted-veined, and produces many stems from one seed or root. Its flowers are purple, and appear in clusters on the stems and branches; its seed-pods are coiled spirally, each containing several seeds, which are kidney-shaped and olive green or bright egg-yellow in color.
Alfalfa is native to Asia, and was familiar to the Egyptians, Medes and Persians, Greeks and the Romans, who distributed it over large portions of southern Europe. Early in the history of the western continent the Spaniards carried alfalfa to South America. It was introduced probably about, 1853 into the United States, in northern California, but attracted no great attention until more recent years. It is the richest forage plant known, and doubtless destined to come into general use in most of the states. In fact it is already grown successfully in greater or less areas in every state in the Union, whereas a few years ago its profitable production was thought possible only in the irrigated valleys of the west, being deemed adapted only to certain conditions found in the so-called semi-arid section; but it is now produced under greatly varying conditions of soils, climate and altitude, and this adaptability gives its growing a wide range. There are but two soil conditions that seem reliably against the successful growth of alfalfa: one is a soil generally wet, the other is too much soil acidity. The latter may be remedied by applications of lime, the other requires drainage. Alfalfa is exceedingly rich in protein, the property in which corn and most other crops are deficient, and hence its hay serves admirably to balance the feeding ration, saving the purchase of high-priced feeds, such as bran, for instance, which, pound for pound, it approximates in value. Its great value to the husbandmen may be further appreciated by the fact that it yields from three to twelve tons per acre per season. One experiment station reports that "one acre of alfalfa yields as much protein as three acres of clover, as much as nine acres of timothy and twelve times as much as an acre of brome-grass." Unless a seed crop is desired, it is cut regularly whenever the first blooms appear, which in some regions is every month in the year, but three to five cuttings per annum would probably be an average range.
It restores and enriches rather than depletes the fertility of the soil in which it grows, supplying it with nitrogen collected from the atmosphere in nodules on its roots, in greatest abundance for other succeeding crops. Its long penetrating roots, reaching to great depths, not only give it unusual powers of resistance to protracted dry weather, but draw from subterranean recesses large quantities of mineral elements which other crops would never reach, and decaying leave these readily available for future crops of whatever kind. The action of its wonderful root-system constitutes it in effect a gigantic subsoiler, and humus is constantly added to the soil by the decay of its fibrous roots, continually branching from the main tap-root. The soils on which alfalfa is grown are wonderfully changed in chemical elemerts and physical character, and it has been denominated as the greatest fertilizing and soil renovating plant known to agriculture.
Its palatability and succulence cause live stock of all kinds to eat it with extreme relish, uncured or as hay, and it is especially prized as a factor in dairy husbandry, affording at lowest cost the most important ingredients of the feeding rations. It is also used as pasturage, but ruminants such as cattle and sheep are not safely grazed upon it, owing to its liability to cause bloat (hoove), often resulting in speedy death.
No diseases of alfalfa are as yet common in America, and it is said more failures in growing it are caused by weeds than all its other enemies and pests combined. Well-prepared seed-beds and the most favorable conditions are demanded for the prosperity of the seed and the young plants during the earlier stages of their growth, if the fullest measure of success is to be attained. Wherever extensively grown, alfalfa has revolutionized the conditions of agriculture, and one of the most eminent agricultural and dairy authorities in the United States recently declared it as his belief that "the alfalfa-growing movement is the most important agricultural event of the century."
F. D. Coburn.