Can Cows Eat Alfalfa?

Cows Eat Alfalfa

The success of a livestock rearing agricultural venture is largely dependent on feed. For this reason, the cost of feed makes up a significant amount of farming expenditure. The cost of feed is often beyond the financial capacity of most farmers. Even for a limited few who can afford commercially produced supplementary feed during dry seasons, they become financially strained as the cost in turn affects the price of produce. As such, farmers are actively seeking for more highly nutritional feed that is also affordable. This has led to the increase in usage of alfalfa hay for cattle. Various agricultural research have indicated that cows can eat alfalfa so at to acquire the nutrients needed for daily substance. It has also been proven that feed lacking in protein can be mixed with alfalfa to improve its nutritional value. In order for farmers to provide animals with sufficient feed rations, there is need to possess knowledge on feed management.

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Nutritional Value

Alfalfa is universally considered as an excellent forage for livestock. In fact, dairy farmers prefer alfalfa hay to any other types of forage. According to research, it is among the few types of hay that is capable of sustaining levels of production that are comparable to those achieved in the feedlot. Alfalfa is a rich source of protein, calcium and has an ideal fibre content hence it is highly palatable to cattle. In addition, it contains a significant amount of carbohydrates and minerals including calcium, phosphorus as well as magnesium. According to research, the nutritional value of alfalfa may sometimes exceed cow dietary needs, particularly beef cattle. Nonetheless, to dismiss its potential for beef cattle would be a mistake. Cows can eat alfalfa to acquire the necessary nutrients and minerals for growth, maintenance, lactation as well as reproduction. Alfalfa can be used as:


  • creep feed or creep grazing area for suckling beef calves
  • feed during a post weaning conditioning period
  • protein source during the growing phase
  • grazing crop for stocker calves and
  • feed for well-milking beef cows after calving


An important point to note when providing alfalfa to livestock is that its nutritional value is dependent on the time of harvest. Early harvested hay generally has a higher nutritional value which declines as time progresses. The level of protein in alfalfa tends to decline while its fibre content increases as it matures. As such, the ideal time to harvest alfalfa is during early growth when the feed is of superior quality. Immature alfalfa can also be used due to its high levels of protein. To add on, caution must be practised when including alfalfa in livestock dietary plans. Although cows can eat alfalfa, it may cause bloat which is often detrimental to health, productivity as well profitability. As a means to control the risk of bloat, some farmers practise co-cropping bloat safe legumes and wilt alfalfa prior to consumption. Also, although cows can feed on alfalfa, excess feed can be detrimental to health.

Alfalfa for Physiological Development of Young Cattle

Cows can eat alfalfa so as to acquire proteins necessary for their physiological development. Alfalfa contains approximately 18% protein, depending on the time of harvest. Due to it high levels of protein, alfalfa is often used for creep grazing suckling calves up until animals reach maturity. Since it is highly palatable, cows are able to consume an increased amount of feed that is needed for their growth. To add on, the high mineral content found in alfalfa plays a crucial role in the development and maintenance of bones, teeth, muscle contraction as well as milk production. Studies have shown that cows fed alfalfa perform better than their counterparts.  A study conducted on animals fed alfalfa versus those fed grain indicated that cows with alfalfa in their dietary plans gained more weight.

Alfalfa for Beef Cattle

Beef cows can feed on alfalfa to improve the quality of meat produced. Alfalfa is ranked as one of the best feeds for breeding cattle, young growing stock as well as for fattening livestock. It is recommended to use this type of forage as a protein source for cattle being fed poor quality hay and grain. Due to its high nutrient content, it counters protein deficiencies allowing for the rapid growth of beef cattle. Research suggests that feeding an estimate of 1.8kg to 2.7kg a day to each cow, along with all of the other coarse non-legume roughages such as corn fodder, sorghum fodder, wild hay, wheat straw or silage improves the weight of beef cattle. Note that excess feed an cause bloat which hinders productivity.

Alfalfa for Dairy Cows

Cow milk is the most popular variety globally, and so the market is very demanding. To meet this highly demanding market, farmers are actively seeking for ways to improve on the quality and amount of milk production. This has led to most farmers growing alfalfa for the sole purpose of providing feed for cows. Alfalfa is relatively cheaper than and just as nutritious as commercially produced feed supplements. Therefore, dairy cows can feed on alfalfa hay as a means to increase milk production. This type of forage is popular for its ideal calcium content which plays an important part in maximising yields whilst improving on produce quality. A common limitation on milk production is lack of adequate energy supply to meet the demands of lactating cows. With high alfalfa forage feeding, a similar problems is experienced. Maintenance of normal metabolism and health are common problems with high concentrate feeding. As such, the proposed solution is to mix alfalfa with concentrates so as to achieve a well-balanced feed.  These should be given in proportions that maximise milk production. High quality alfalfa is said to be the most ideal supplement for concentrate and grain feed.

Alfalfa for Health Maintenance

Alfalfa contains digestible nutrients. It has lower levels of neutral detergent fibre and so feed is slowly digested in the rumen. This means that it is rapidly cleared thereby stimulating intake. Cows can eat alfalfa as it provides more buffering capacity in the rumen. This in turn helps buffer the pH changes and decrease the incidence of health problems such as ruminal acidosis. To add on, cows can feed on alfalfa so as to absorb trace nutrients that are essential in health maintenance. These include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulphur, iron, zinc, and selenium. Animal dietary plans lacking in trace nutrients result in ill livestock and declined productivity over time. Oxidative stress is a rampant problem that leads to poor quality yields. The trace elements found in alfalfa help to prevent oxidative stress. As clearly stated, cows can eat alfalfa so as to boost their immune system allowing them some form of protection against diseases.