Brief History of Alfalfa

Alfalfa, the oldest of our cultivated forage crops, is thought to have “originated in southwestern Asia with Iran as the geographic center of origin” (Goplen et al., 1987, p. 5) Alfalfa was first introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. Meeting with idyllic conditions in Mexico and Peru, the alfalfa plant thrived and spread to “Chile, Argentina, and finally to Uruguay by 1775.” (Bolton et al., 1975, p. 7) Catholic missionaries brought alfalfa to Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. “Many areas were producing alfalfa in the southwestern USA by 1836. However, it was the introduction of the “Chilean clover” to California during the days of the gold rush that proved to be of major importance.” (Bolton et al., 1975, p. 7) In fact, cultivating alfalfa was usually a better paying enterprise than panning for gold.

By “the late 1800’s, alfalfa was being grown to some extent in Montana, Iowa, Missouri, and Ohio. Although the Chilean (Spanish) sources of alfalfa were well adapted to the southwestern states, they lacked winter hardiness needed for successful production in the northern and eastern states.” (Bolton et al., 1975, p. 8) Meanwhile, colonists in New England had already introduced alfalfa to their new homeland under the name “lucerne”. “…More than 100 years before alfalfa made its important entry into California from Chile, the crop had been recorded in Georgia (1736), North Carolina (1739), and New York (1791).” (Bolton et al., 1975, p. 8) However, lucerne was having a tough time thriving along the eastern states as soils are generally more acidic and the humidity very high.

Cultivation of alfalfa was largely unsuccessful in Canada and in the northern United States until the more hardy variegated strains of “Medicago media (purple-flowered M. sativa x yellow-flowered M. falcata)” (Goplen et al, 1987, p. 5) were introduced via a German immigrant, Wendelin Grimm who settled in Minnesota in 1857. Grimm persevered through the substantial winter-kill that several back-to-back brutal winters wrought on his alfalfa crops. Through the process of natural selection a resultant hardy strain of alfalfa was born. “…Grimm’s alfalfa soon advanced successful alfalfa culture into the northern states and Canada.” (Goplen et al., 1987, p. 5)

While there have been introductions of other strains of alfalfa since that time, it was the initial efforts of Wendelin Grimm in the late 1850’s that have enabled us at Barr-Ag to grow alfalfa hay near the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains . Today alfalfa is available as an early maturing or standard or medium maturing types.

At Barr-Ag, we take up to three cuts of the early maturing varieties of alfalfa from our irrigated farms. This alfalfa hay is sought after for its higher protein content. The later maturing variety is grown on our dryland properties and we harvest up to two cuts. All of our alfalfa hay is non-GMO.(See the attached article: USDA to OK Genetically Modified
Alfalfa; Good-Bye Organic Dairy, Honey, and Grass-Fed Beef? )

Barr-Ag’s head office is located at 5837 Imperial Drive, Olds, Alberta, Canada, T4H 1G6. Please visit our website www.barr-ag.com or call or write if you have any questions about our timothy hay, non-GMO alfalfa hay or any of our other products. We can be reached by telephone at: 403 507 8660 or by email at: info@barr-ag.com or haysales@barr-ag.com

References:
Bolton, J.L., Goplen, B.P., Baenziger, H., (1975) Alfalfa Science and Technology
Goplen, B.P, Baenziger, H., Bailey, L.D., Gross, A.T.H., Hanna, M.R., Michaud, R., Richards, K.W., Waddington, J., (1987) Agriculture Canada: Growing and Managing Alfalfa in Canada, Publication 1705/E
Evers, Gerald W., Sheaffer, Craig C., (2007) Forages: The Science of Grassland Agriculture

One thought on “Brief History of Alfalfa

  1. Tom Vic Cunilio

    You folks are thoroughly into alfalfa. We have been working with Florida’s alfalfa for many years beginning at the UFL. Arachis glabrata is from the America’s. I am writing a proposal to research it (again) on Florida’s best soil which is owned by Cargill (most of it is). My not-for-profit corp is seeking interested parties who might like to consider working with us. The source of research funding is a new foundation in D.C. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that Florida’s imported alfalfa could be substituted with the hay of this sub-tropical legume. Please let me know if you’d like to visit on the phone. I am a huge fan of Alberta, Canada, was educated by Bill Peyton who taught there at the Univ. for many years. Respectfully yours, Tom Cunilio Center of Sustainable Agroforestry.

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