Growings On: Incorporating Alfalfa into Forage Systems Leads to Environmental Benefits | Lifestyles
Alfalfa, once the dominant forage in Georgia, is the third most profitable crop in the United States. Combined with cheap nitrogen prices, difficulty growing the desirable forage crop in Georgia’s harsh climate led to a decline in alfalfa production in the state after its peak in the 1960s.
Now, University of Georgia Pasture Specialist Jennifer Tucker is doing her part to restore alfalfa production in the state to benefit growers and the land.
Tucker, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is working with colleagues at Auburn University, University of Florida, and University of Tennessee on U.S. Department grants of Agriculture from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) Alfalfa Seed and Alfalfa Forage System Program to develop best management practices to restore grasslands and sustainably increase alfalfa production in the Southeast.
In recent years, Tucker’s program has received several grants from the USDA-NIFA Alfalfa Fourage and Research Program focused on increasing the use of alfalfa in the region. The most recent awards will culminate in a five-year project that will measure the amount of carbon sequestered in these alfalfa systems, as well as its influence on nutrient cycling in the soil and in grazing animals.
Beginning in late September, Tucker’s team began work on a university-industry collaboration with Forage Genetics International to introduce alfalfa into the UGA-Tifton Animal and Dairy Science farm research fields that have been used in field crop production for nearly two decades to determine how alfalfa production can improve soil health and carbon sequestration.
“We’re taking that land out of annual crop production for livestock feed and putting it into a short-term perennial forage crop for livestock feed – that’s the benefit of growing alfalfa, you go to have for five to seven years in this area without ground disturbance,” Tucker said.
His collaborative team includes UGA professors who focus on forages, weeds, soils and precision agriculture working together to illustrate the change in carbon when switching from an annual forage crop to a forage crop. perennial to allow the soil to rest. The field will be grid sampled annually to determine what factors are changing in the soil environment and what recommendations need to be made for the health of the system.
“We know forages are great for carbon sequestration, but now we want to draw that picture more clearly. Especially with the carbon emissions discussions that are going on and the carbon credit movement, we have no way to really quantify much of this information,” Tucker said.
“We see a lot of people who are in livestock forage areas, and that’s where you see your biggest soil carbon effects – because they’re not setting aside those areas just for crops. They use this animal for the benefit of the system. The industry is very interested in seeing the results of this.
Tucker said she became interested in the carbon-capturing potential of her forage work after hearing about experiments in which men’s cotton underwear (think ‘tight whites’) is buried. in various soils under different management systems to see how active the soils are and how degraded the cotton is when it is later dug up. In healthy, active soils, the process happens fairly quickly – some changes can be seen in as little as a week – but most tests take much longer to get a good representation of soil activity.
“Some of these soils have so much activity that all that’s left is the elastic waistband,” Tucker said. “Basically it’s to show that if you have really healthy soil that has all the things that do what they’re supposed to do and work together, it will degrade the cotton. And if not, you only have dirty underwear.
The new emphasis on carbon capture and the environment brings validation to centuries-old agricultural practices, including the incorporation of livestock into cropping systems to improve soil fertility and productivity.
“Livestock systems contribute to carbon sequestration, probably as much if not more than concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. Much of this is viewed from a negative perspective, but there are things that are being done in the animal production industry that offset a lot of these concerns that have been heralded as harmful to the environment,” Tucker said.
Roger Gates is the Agricultural and Natural Resources Officer for the University of Georgia Extension in Whitfield County. Contact him at [email protected]