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Organic farmers harvest benefits from forages

Ag News Wire
By Craig Sheaffer, University of Minnesota Extension

organic-farmers.jpgST. PAUL, Minn. (4/25/2011) —Alfalfa and other forages can provide great benefits to organic farmers. One producer from Lac Qui Parle County saw his operation begin to turn around once he incorporated alfalfa into his rotation. He found better soil, higher yields and improved weed control.

Several legumes (such as alfalfa and clover) and grasses are used in organic cropping systems in the Midwest. Grasses are longer-lived and more tolerant of adverse management and environmental conditions, compared to legumes. But grasses require nitrogen fertilization to promote yield. For livestock feeding, legumes are valued for their protein content and digestibility.

Organic production is risky, but there are ways to limit risk. Some ways to curb uncertainty with organic forages include:

  • If soil pH is too low for alfalfa, grow red clover or birdsfoot trefoil instead. Test soil nutrients and apply amendments accordingly. If your soil lacks good drainage, plant red clover or birdsfoot trefoil instead of alfalfa. Choose legume varieties with good winter hardiness for your area.
  • Use orchardgrass or smooth bromegrass if you plan to cut forage for hay more than three times. Choose Kentucky bluegrass under continuous grazing conditions. And if you're planning to grow a grass for more than two years, smooth bromegrass is a better choice.
  • With spring seeding, plant at the recommended time for your region. Planting before the recommended date will lead to an increased risk of frost damage. Planting after the recommended date will increase risks of moisture deficit, high temperatures and competition with annual weeds. Typical planting date ranges are listed at
  • Poor weed control in annual crops will increase risk in forages due to buildup of weed seed banks and more perennial weeds. Increased diversity in your crop rotation (rotating different crops) will reduce weed populations.

You'll find details on forage selection, establishment, weed control and harvesting in a new web-based guide titled "Risk Management Guide for Organic Producers." The guide is available at It has 14 chapters covering a wide range of crops and production topics relevant to organic producers and those transitioning to organic production.

You can also check the University of Minnesota Extension Forages website at

Any use of this article must include the byline or following credit line:
Craig Sheaffer is a professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota.

Media Contact: Catherine Dehdashti, U of M Extension, (612) 625-0237,

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