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Beat Alfalfa Bloat

Posted: Aug 27, 2021

Get high grazing returns without endangering your herd

The Queen of forages – alfalfa, is one of the only forages that can provide levels of nutrition that rival those seen in feedlots. Mixtures that contain alfalfa are incredibly productive, outyielding their grass counterparts, they fix their own nitrogen, and have lower carbon footprints. Including alfalfa in your forage pastures can lower your overall feed costs, and increase farm net revenue. With all of these benefits, farmers and ranchers are still cautious with the legume – if fed at the wrong stage, or in too high of quantities, cattle can experience bloat – an often fatal condition.

When does bloat happen?

There are several key times when bloat risk is highest on alfalfa – when the plant is in the vegetative to early bloom stages of growth, as well as earlier in the day.

Waiting to graze your alfalfa until it is in full bloom is a common best management practice, and those who’ve been in the industry for a while advise not to put cattle onto an alfalfa pasture until after the morning dew has burned off. These techniques allow for lower levels of soluble protein in the plant, and reduce your bloat risk

It is also recommended to ‘train’ your cattle on how to graze alfalfa. When put into a mixed stand, cattle will likely consume the other forages first, leaving the alfalfa for last and them at high risk of bloat. You can provide good quality alfalfa-grass hay to avoid overfeeding on fresh alfalfa. Animals can also be discouraged from selectively eating only the top parts of the plant with high stocking densities, and shouldn’t be introduced to alfalfa pasture if they are coming from a pasture that was overgrazed and are hungry.

Managing Bloat

While there is no way to completely rid yourself of the risk of bloat when incorporating alfalfa into your forage mix, there are a few ways to set up your pastures to lower your risk.

One of the most effective ways is to include grasses alongside your alfalfa. Providing cattle with a mixture of good quality alfalfa-grass pasture can provide the rumen fill that is necessary to prevent overconsumption of fresh alfalfa when cattle are first introduced to the pasture. Keeping your alfalfa below 50% of the total forage consumption in pasture will go a long ways to protect your herd.  

Consider planting bloat-safe legumes in your pasture such as sainfoin, cicer milkvetch or trefoil. Incorporating these legumes into old pastures can have the added benefit of rejuvenating that pasture with more species diversity and improving productivity. This allows you to avoid the process of completely replacing your pasture, while also generating more feed value per acre.

Including a minimum of 15-25% of sainfoin in your stand also has the added benefit of preventing bloat in cattle feeding on alfalfa, apart from being a non-bloat legume itself.

You can also select for bloat tolerance in your herd, and there are products that are added to cattle’s drinking water, as well as pharmaceutical preventatives that will  greatly reduce the risk of bloat.

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