Lucerne

24.05.17

Lucerne (Medicago sativa L.) is a herbaceous perennial legume that has its origins in the Near East and Asian Minor but it is now naturalised from Spain to China, and from Sweden to North Africa. It was one of the first fodder crops in the world to be domesticated. Naturally, lucerne is a summer growing plant but plant breeding has extended the growing season, with many varieties having good winter activity.

The lucerne plant has erect stems arising from a woody base, about 2–5mm in diameter and growing to about 1m high. The leaves are dark green and arranged as three oval-shaped leaflets attached to a petiole that attaches to the stem. The flowers occur in a dense cluster of 10–35 and are usually purple, blue or even white in colour. Curled pods contain about 2–6 yellow to brown seeds.

Overview

The lucerne plant has a deep tap root (sometimes up to 15m), which gives the plant several agronomic benefits. It can use water at depth in the soil profile, enabling the plant to survive dry periods over summer. The deep tap root also means the plant can use water to alleviate rising watertables and improve soil structure. Being a legume, lucerne fixes atmospheric nitrogen and adds to the organic nitrogen content of the soil, which can remain in the soil for several years and contribute to the nutrition of subsequent crops or pastures.

Lucerne is grown throughout the world and whether it is grazed or conserved for fodder, it has one of the highest feeding values of all stock feed. It was introduced to Australia over 200 years ago and in the 1970s, spotted alfalfa aphids almost wiped out all lucerne stands in Australia. This prompted significant breeding and introduction of new varieties, and there are now more than 50 lucerne varieties available to Australian growers.

Lucerne is well adapted to dryland and irrigation farming systems; suits a range of soil types across Australia but grows best in southern Australia. Lucerne can be grown as a short-term pasture in a cropping rotation, to improve soil condition between annual crops and provide valuable forage. Alternatively, lucerne can be a lucrative enterprise for the production of fodder (high quality hay, silage or chaff) or seed. The lucerne stand for a fodder or seed crop may last 10–15 years, provided that the crown of the plant, from which repeated growth will come, is not damaged by livestock or machinery.

While lucerne is diverse in its growing regions and uses, a successful and profitable lucerne enterprise requires significant attention to detail and excellent agronomy skills.

The industry organisations representing lucerne growers are the Australian Fodder Industry Association for matters relating to fodder production and Lucerne Australia for matters relating to seed production.

Facts and figures

  • Lucerne grows in a wide range of environments in Australia, from subtropical regions in Queensland to the cool climate of Tasmania, but it is most productive in southern Australia
  • As a perennial legume, lucerne has many potential uses in Australian farming systems: short-term pasture between cropping rotations, long-term pasture on grazing properties, a crop for fodder production, or a seed production enterprise
  • Fodder and seed production are specialised enterprises, with specific agronomy, machinery and marketing requirements, and high levels of skill required
  • Demand for lucerne hay in Australia is generally high, and most lucerne fodder is sold domestically
  • Lucerne seed is primarily produced under contract as certified seed and exported

Production status

Pasture

The extent of lucerne pasture production is almost impossible to ascertain, as land area planted to lucerne and pasture production is not accounted for in agricultural statistics on a regular basis, and there is not a levy system in place for pasture lucerne. Lucerne pasture is grown in all states and territories of Australia, and most lucerne sown in Australia is for grazing purposes, on a long-term basis or within crop rotations.

Fodder
About 40% of Lucerne production is in New South Wales, 25% in Victoria, 16% in Queensland and 13% in South Australia. Almost 7,000 agricultural businesses are involved in the production of hay and silage. It should be noted that the figures quoted do not distinguish between lucerne grown predominantly for grazing (pasture lucerne) and specialist fodder production enterprises. Hay production from other sources is more significant.

Lucerne fodder production is difficult to ascertain, as production of lucerne hay, silage, chaff and pellets/cubes is not itemised in agricultural statistics and there is not a levy system in place for these products. Further, a significant amount of production is traded in private negotiations rather than through a central or registered market system.

Seed

Lucerne seed production in Australia is heavily concentrated (83%) in the south east of South Australia, around the towns of Keith, Naracoorte, Tintinara and Bordertown. Small areas of production also occur in the Riverland of South Australia, far western Victoria and around Forbes in the Lachlan Valley of New South Wales.

The Australian lucerne seed industry is made up of over 250 individual seed producing farms (based on the number of growers submitting lucerne seed for ASA certification). Annual certified lucerne seed production varies but was is generally in the range or 4,000–7,000 tonnes (for data reported 30 June each year). There is no system to record seed that is produced for non-certified lucerne seed markets but industry estimates this is about 30–40% of total seed production in Australia.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Lucerne is regarded as “the king of fodder” and in the forage or fodder form it provides an excellent source of protein and energy  for livestock. Its foliage is highly digestible, therefore the intake of digestible nutrients by livestock is higher than for most other forages. The level of fibrous tissue is low and this allows rapid passage through the rumen. In particular, protein and calcium levels are high relative to other fodders but metabolisable energy (ME) and phosphorus levels, which are good in young growth, drop rapidly as the foliage matures.

Pasture

Lucerne can be grown as a short-term pasture in a cropping rotation to improve soil condition, provide a disease break and build up soil nitrogen between annual crops, as well as provide valuable forage for livestock. Lucerne may also be grown as long-term pasture, providing valuable forage as pure lucerne or in a mix with other legumes and grasses. Periodically, lucerne pasture may be conserved for fodder, as hay or silage, which will be used on farm when standing pasture reserves are low, e.g. late summer or early winter. Generally, in the pasture situation, lucerne will be cut for hay to control weeds or conserve excess production.

Fodder

Lucerne may be grown specifically for the purpose of producing fodder in the form of hay, silage, chaff or pellets, mostly sold off-farm for use in a diverse range of livestock industries, from extensive grazing industries, to high production dairy enterprises, elite horse-based enterprises, through to daily rations for zoo animals.

Large grazing enterprises, particularly dairy farms, may dedicate land to lucerne hay or silage production, and the conserved fodder is fed to livestock at strategic times of the year when there is a pasture deficit. Other enterprises may use farm-produced fodder at specific times of the production cycle (e.g. finishing beef cattle in a feedlot).

Seed

Lucerne seed is produced for domestic and international markets, with the customer generally being a seed company or merchant. Sixty to seventy per cent of lucerne seed grown in Australia will be grown under contract (and certified) and of this 95% is exported. Seed produced for public sale (e.g. for sale to other farmers and local merchants) is generally produced opportunistically within the grazing system, when seasonal conditions permit.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Pasture

The development of lucerne varieties since the 1970s has resulted in varieties for a wide range of environments in Australia. Lucerne grows best in southern Australia, where it can achieve a dormant period over winter and is a popular choice of pasture, alone or in a mix, across much of Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales.

Lucerne has also proved valuable forage in subtropical and tropical environments; however the lack of winter dormancy will affect its persistence or longevity. The heat and humidity of the wet season in tropical Australia promotes crown and root diseases in lucerne, also affecting persistence.

Fodder

Lucerne is established as a fodder enterprise in many regions throughout Australia, but predominantly in southern Australia (from central New South Wales southwards). The availability of irrigation water or adequate annual rainfall will be a major determinant of where a fodder enterprise can be established.

Seed

In Australia, commercial seed production is concentrated in south east South Australia, where over 80% of seed production occurs. Other production areas include the irrigations areas of the Riverland of South Australia, far western Victoria and the Lachlan Valley in New South Wales. The reliability of climate and water (irrigation or rainfall) is a major factor for the predominance of a lucerne seed industry in these regions; together with the aggregation of services and infrastructure that is required for a grower to participate in the seed industry. Certified seed must be produced in reasonable proximity to accredited facilities, for the enterprise to be viable.

Soil type

Lucerne requires deep, well-drained soils that are slightly acid to slightly alkaline (5.2–7.5 pHCaCl2). It will grow in soil textures from sands to moderately heavy clays, provided that drainage is satisfactory – lucerne is intolerant of even short periods of waterlogging. Lucerne does best on free draining, sandy soils.

Lucerne is also intolerant of high levels of soil aluminium, a consequence of acidification on many soils, which will inhibit root development and cause difficulties with establishment.

Climate

Lucerne is a summer-growing plant that has a period of dormancy over winter (depending on variety), to build up its store of energy for growth in spring and summer. Adequate dormancy is important for the persistence or longevity of the crop, as well as protecting the plant from winter cold.

Generally, optimum temperatures for dry matter production are in the range of 15–25°C for daytime and 10–20°C during the night. The level of winter activity in the cultivar will extend these ranges, i.e. more highly winter active cultivars will tolerate lower temperatures. New growth can be damaged by frost, however this is unlikely to impact production as lucerne has the ability to reshoot from its crown throughout the season.

The timing of flowering, which is important in a seed production enterprise, will be influenced by the plant’s response to day length and temperature, and this response varies with different cultivars and the level of winter activity.

Lucerne is a relatively drought tolerant plant but it will produce yields proportionate to water supply. Lucerne can survive with a minimum of 300–400mm of annual rainfall for environments ranging from Tasmania to northern New South Wales. A fodder production enterprise will require an irrigation water requirement of 7–13ML/ha, depending on location. Seed production enterprises operate successfully in south east Australia in an annual rainfall zone of 400–600mm but many enterprises will budget to apply 4–8ML/ha of irrigation water.

Varieties

Lucerne was introduced to Australia over 200 years ago and for many years most lucerne grown was the Hunter River variety. In 1977, spotted alfalfa aphids almost destroyed all lucerne stands in Australia, which prompted significant breeding and variety introduction. There are more than 50 varieties available to Australian growers.

Varieties have been bred for a range of characteristics in relation to:

  • winter growth habit or dormancy
  • resistance to pests
  • resistance to disease.

In Australia, lucerne varieties are generally developed by private enterprise or partnerships between state government departments and private enterprise. Alternatively, some varieties have been developed overseas and tested in Australia before commercial release. Advice on the best variety for intended purposes (pasture, fodder or seed) and suitability to local conditions should be sought from an agronomist or seed retailer.

In terms of seed production, 85% of seed grown is of proprietary varieties as sought by contracting agencies or companies. The remainder of seed produced are public varieties.

General information on lucerne varieties has been collated by Pastures AustraliaNew South Wales Department of Primary Industries, and Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Information on varieties specific to seed production has been collated by Lucerne Australia.

Planting and crop management

Lucerne is usually planted in autumn (irrigated lucerne may also be planted in spring) when there is sufficient soil moisture and soil temperatures are warm enough. Seeding rate will depend on expected productivity and end use of the lucerne. For dryland production, a sowing rate of 1–5kg/ha is recommended; for irrigated lucerne 10–15kg/ha.

For pasture and fodder, lucerne can be sown as the only species in the stand or as part of a pasture mix that includes other legumes, grasses and sometimes fodder brassica species, e.g. chicory. Lucerne sown with other grass and legume pasture species provides year-round growth and reduces the animal health risks associated with pure lucerne stands. The advice of an agronomist is recommended to choose the best variety, as well as the most suitable species mix for the intended enterprise.

It is necessary to inoculate lucerne seed at sowing, with Group AL bacteria, to ensure the right group of nitrogen-fixing bacteria develops in the root zone of the crop. Seed should also be lime-pelleted to aid establishment in acid soils.

Highly productive lucerne, such as fodder and seed lucerne, requires a well-planned fertiliser program to maintain soil nutrient levels and ensure future productivity. Phosphorus, potassium and sulphur should be applied in most situations. Even though lucerne is a legume and produces its own nitrogen, highly productive systems may benefit from nitrogen fertiliser as well. In more marginal fertility soils, nutrients such as magnesium, manganese, zinc, molybdenum, boron and copper may be required. Nutrient management should be guided by soil tests and leaf tissue tests, especially in high nutrient removal enterprises such as hay making, and seed production where nutrient balance is important.

Water management of irrigated lucerne must be careful and strategic to avoid waterlogging, as well as maximise water use efficiency. Depending on the end use of the crop, the irrigation strategy will be designed to provide adequate moisture at critical development points of the crop. Soil moisture monitoring techniques, e.g. tensiometers, are recommended.

The publications, Lucerne for pasture and fodderProducing Quality Lucerne Hay and Agronomic Support Manual for Lucerne Seed Production, outline the principles of crop management for lucerne pasture, fodder and seed crops.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

Young seedlings are intolerant of shading, therefore lucerne should be sown into a clean seedbed with minimal weeds. Ideally, weeds should be addressed prior to sowing. Once the crop is established, weed control depends on the use of selective herbicides or the timely cutting of the crop, which may sacrifice hay quality, to prevent seed set and contamination of later hay cuts or seed. Grazing may also be an option to prevent seed set of weeds.

Comprehensive information on weed management in lucerne stands is produced by state departments of agriculture, including Weed control in pastures and lucerne (NSW DPI), and Lucerne – varieties, establishment, weed management (Qld DAFF). Agronomists and advisors also provide recommendations for weed management programs.

A wide range of insect pests may attack lucerne, reducing the success of establishment of new stands and the productivity of established stands. Any variety sown in Australia should be resistant to spotted alfalfa aphid, and resistance to blue green aphid is also recommended. Other pests that should be monitored and controlled if detected, include red-legged earth mite, lucerne flea, aphids, and weevils; there are also pests that will be endemic to the different growing regions. State departments of agriculture can provide information of likely pests; and agronomists and advisors can provide recommendations for monitoring and management programs.

There is a range of diseases that affect lucerne, more so under irrigated conditions, and varieties should be selected that offer resistance to the key diseases phytophthora root rot and anthracnose. Resistance is also available to diseases such as bacterial wilt and stem nematode. Local advice should be sought when selecting varieties. State departments of agriculture can provide information of likely diseases; and agronomists and advisors can provide recommendations for monitoring and management programs.

Infrastructure Requirements

The establishment of a lucerne stand requires:

  • cultivation equipment for seedbed preparation, if lucerne is not being direct drilled
  • seeding equipment (combine or direct seeder) with the capacity to sow small seeds.

Ongoing management of lucerne requires:

  • fertiliser spreader
  • spray equipment for application of herbicides and pesticides
  • irrigation infrastructure and correctly designed field layout, if the stand is to be irrigated.

Other standard farm equipment such as a tractor and a ute and/or truck may also be required.

Hay production

To make lucerne hay, the following machinery may be required:

  • mower to cut the lucerne
  • conditioner to bend the stems to speed the rate of drying (specialist hay producers will use a mower–conditioner)
  • hay rake to aid final drying and form windrows
  • baler to process the lucerne into bales of the required size
  • elevator and truck to lift bales and transport them to storage
  • lifting capacity (a tractor with forks or a specialised lifter) to take bales from the truck and stack them for storage
  • shed/s for storage of the hay.

Some growers may use contractors for some or all of the steps of the hay making, however the ability to carry out each step at the correct time is critical for the production of quality hay. Substantial hay production enterprises will own their equipment to maintain full flexibility with timing of operations.

Other lucerne hay products

If lucerne hay is being cubed, pelleted or made into chaff, then specialised manufacturing plant will also be required, along with facilities to house the equipment and package the end product. Setting up plant of this nature will require a significant financial investment and specialised expertise.

Silage production

If lucerne silage is being produced, the following equipment will be required:

  • mower to cut the lucerne
  • possibly a conditioner to aid the wilting process
  • for bulk (pit or bunker) silage
    • earthmoving equipment (potentially hired) to dig the pit
    • forage harvester or wagon (self-propelled or trailed) to collect the forage from the field and chop the plant material into small pieces
    • pick-up wagon, if using a harvester, to transfer fresh silage back to the pit
  • for baled silage
    • baler with a chopper
    • wrapping machine lifters to transfer bales from field to truck to storage.

Due to the specialised nature of silage-making equipment, some growers may use contractors for some or all of the steps of the silage making; however the ability to carry out each step of silage production at the correct time is critical for quality and large enterprises will own their equipment to maintain full flexibility with timing of operations.

Seed production

Seed production will require the following equipment:

  • mower and rake, or windrower if the lucerne is to be swathed before harvest
  • harvester – the conventional type used for other grains
  • chaser bins and field bins to aggregate seed
  • auger to transfer seed
  • truck to transport seed to storage and cleaning facilities (generally off-farm).

Harvesting & Processing

Pasture

The ‘harvest’ for lucerne pasture is grazing by livestock. In its first year, a lucerne stand should not be grazed until full flowering – this will be in late spring for an autumn-sown stand – allowing for energy reserves of the roots to be replenished and the plants to withstand more intensive grazing in future seasons. Lucerne is ideally suited to rotational grazing, meaning that the lucerne paddock is divided into grazing units, or other pasture types/areas are available, and stock are rotated through the different units. While rotational grazing will maximise the longevity of the lucerne stand, lucerne can last several seasons with carefully managed set stocking grazing. State departments of agriculture provide recommendations for grazing Lucerne.

Stocking rates will depend on pasture quality, climate and variety. In general, lucerne in medium rainfall areas of New South Wales can support 15–30 dry sheep equivalents (DSE) per hectare.

Lucerne pasture may also be cut to make ‘opportunity’ hay, when there is excess pasture growth in good seasons or if the lucerne stand becomes weedy and haymaking provides an opportunity to prevent weed seed set. In the right circumstances (right variety, minimal/no weeds, availability of a contract and access to seed harvesting and cleaning facilities) a grazing stand could be harvested for seed.

Fodder

Hay

Generally, lucerne is cut for hay when 10% of the stems have open flowers. Yield from individual cuts ranges from 1-4 t/ha and generally declines with successive harvests. The haymaking season typically extends from October to April, with some variation between growing regions. The number of hay cuts and annual yield of hay varies with growing region and whether or not the crop is irrigated. A well-managed irrigated lucerne stand could produce 15–25t/ha lucerne hay per year, from 5–7 cuts. In dryland conditions up to 6–7t/ha could be produced in favourable years from 1–2 cuts. In subtropical climates (e.g. Queensland) yields of up to 40t/ha, from 8–10 cuts, are possible but require very high levels of management, especially in regards to irrigation and disease.

There are several steps in the production of lucerne hay: mowing, curing, conditioning, raking (and sometimes windrowing) and baling. It is essential that each is carried out on time to maintain the high feed value of the lucerne. Also, the moisture of the hay should be monitored throughout production to ensure a high quality product that stores well and is not susceptible to mould or heating. However, even with the best management practices, weather events can ruin the value of a hay cut.

There will be a compromise between quality and yield. The earlier the cut, the higher the quality of the fodder but the lower the yield. There are several shapes and sizes of hay bales (e.g. small square, large square, round) and the type made will depend on the end use and market for the hay.

Hay production practices are explained in the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries’ Producing Quality Lucerne Hay (summary)Producing Quality Lucerne Hay (comprehensive report) and Lucerne for pasture and fodder.

To maintain quality (and colour, which is important for retail markets), lucerne hay should be stored under cover so it cannot be weathered. Storage facilities range from purpose-built, fully-enclosed sheds with waterproof flooring to less permanent structures such as polypropylene igloos to temporary in-field storage under tarpaulins.

The lucerne stand used for hay production should be allowed to progress to flowering at some stage of the growing season, to allow replenishment of the root reserves of the plant, so that productivity and persistence can be maintained.

Silage

Lucerne is best cut for silage between full bud and the commencement of flowering. The time of cutting will be a compromise between quality and yield. The earlier the cut, the higher the quality of the silage but the lower the yield.

Lucerne is suited to the production of bulk (pit) and baled silage, and depending on location, can potentially yield 1.5–3.0t/ha per cut, 4–7 times per year. The silage making season extends from October to April, with some variation between growing regions.

There are several steps in the production of silage: mowing, wilting (possibly conditioning), windrowing and harvesting. It is essential that each step is carried out on time, and at the right stage of plant growth and dry matter content, to ensure the high feed value of the silage.

The harvested plant material is baled as it is harvested and packed or wrapped in plastic for fermentation, as individual bales or a wrapped ‘sausage’, or it is transferred to earthen pits for fermentation. To produce quality silage, the chopped pasture must be stored in airtight conditions—be it bulk or bale. Ensiling (preparing the chopped pasture for fermentation) also requires the correct dry matter content, well compacted material with as much air as possible expelled, and regular checking of pit covers and bale covers to ensure there are no holes.

Storage life depends on the ensiling system. Individual bales can be stored for about 12 months, and pit silage can be stored for 3–5 years. Some pit storage has been successful for 20–40 years.

Silage production and management practices are explained in detail in the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries’ Successful silage TopFodder silage manual.

The lucerne stand used for silage production should be allowed to progress to flowering at some stage of the growing season, to allow replenishment of the root reserves of the plant, so that productivity and persistence can be maintained.

Seed

Lucerne seed is harvested in March–April but the planning for the seed crop commences in the winter before with sheep grazing the crop to maintain even growth and to prevent early seed set. In a good season with plenty of growth, the crop may be cut for hay, once or twice depending on the hay market. The paddock is then locked up (livestock removed) and watered, to encourage flowering in January and seed set in February.

To ensure yields of lucerne seed are maximised, good cross pollination is critical. Honey bees are the most common pollinator of lucerne and most lucerne seed producers will engage the services of beekeepers to install beehives near the lucerne, to enhance pollination within the crop.

Lucerne seed is mature five to six weeks after pollination, therefore harvest can be planned approximately six weeks after the crop has finished flowering or six weeks after pollinating bees are removed. To facilitate the ripening of as much seed as possible, the crop is swathed or desiccated in preparation for harvest.

The crop is harvested with a header (or combine harvester). A clean header is critical to avoid contamination of the seed; and careful attention should be paid to header settings and travel speeds to minimise seed losses and damage to the seed during the harvest operation.

Harvested seed is generally transported from the farm to cleaning and storage facilities (in some cases, the lucerne seed grower may own facilities and offer services to other growers).

The harvested seed requires cleaning before it can be marketed, to remove weather damaged lucerne seed, immature lucerne seed, weed seeds, trash (plant material) and damaged seeds. The seed is also graded using a gravity table which separates and removes light-weight seed from the batch. If the seed is to be sold as certified seed, it must be cleaned by an accredited seed cleaner, who usually has centrally located facilities. Mobile cleaning units are available but these are rarely accredited for certified lucerne seed.

Cleaned lucerne seed may require scarifying to reduce hard seed levels, if the seed is destined for domestic markets. Exported seed may not be shipped for 4–6 months, which is sufficient time for hard seed levels to drop.

The seed is then bagged, and for certified seed, each bag contains its own seed certification tag. Each bag is sampled by an accredited seed sampler, to test the purity and germination of each bag of seed.

Seed certification is an important aspect of lucerne seed production. Most of the lucerne seed exported from Australia is OECD or AOSCA certified, which means buyers can be confident of the genetic integrity (varietal purity) of the seed. The publication Agronomic Support Manual for Lucerne Seed Production provides step by step guidelines for producing certified seed.

Markets & Marketing

Fodder

There are many markets for lucerne fodder products and new growers will need to identify the buyer that best suits their production level, product quality and location. As with any new enterprise, identifying the market is essential for planning. For example, different customers will have different preferences for bale sizes, which will influence machinery investment.

On average only around 10% of lucerne hay produced is exported, and the majority of that is as lucerne meal or pellets. While there are opportunities for international sales, domestic demand is strong and more attractive to Australian growers. Domestically, lucerne hay can be sold directly to other farmers – dairy, feedlotters and equine enterprises in particular; to produce stores and agents for retail sale to small farm owners and horse owners; and to stockfeed manufacturers.

Lucerne hay prices can be variable, and vary across Australia in response to supply and demand, and lucerne hay is frequently transported long distances to meet demand or market requirements.

Seed

Lucerne seed is predominantly sold as certified seed, where seed companies establish contracts with individual growers to produce seed of specified, and usually proprietary, varieties. Because of the rigorous cleaning requirements, most certified seed producers are located within close proximity to accredited seed cleaning facilities in the south east of South Australia.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

Lucerne is a challenging crop/pasture to grow, and growers must have excellent attention to detail in terms of soil preparation for sowing (including correcting soil pH to minimise adverse soil aluminium levels), good weed control before establishing the stand, due to limited in-crop herbicide options, protection of germinating seedlings against insect pests (especially red-legged earth mites) and if irrigated, careful watering to avoid root rots. Regardless of end use, grazing and mowing must be strategic to ensure maximum productivity without jeopardising the persistence of the stand. Each type of lucerne enterprise also has its own unique risks.

Pasture

There are some risks to stock health when grazing lucerne, the most serious being bloat and to a lesser extent pulpy kidney, red gut of sheep, nitrate/nitrite poisoning and pizzle rot in sheep, photosensitization in horses and reduced twinning rates in ewes. The risks can be minimised by careful introduction of stock to lucerne in the ‘bloat season’ and ensuring other feed sources are available at risk times. More detail is provided in the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries’ Lucerne for pasture and fodder and publications from other state departments of agriculture. Farm advisors and veterinarians can also provide advice on health management of stock grazing lucerne.

Fodder

Fodder production is a challenging enterprise because productivity and quality are very dependent on the correct timing of each step of the production process. At key times, lucerne fodder production is intensive (with baling often best done in the late evening and very early morning) and if using contractors then timing needs to be carefully managed.

The greatest risk in a fodder enterprise is weather. While high value enterprises use irrigation to ensure a reliable water supply to maintain the productivity of the crop, wet weather at hay-making or silage-making time can downgrade or ruin the entire cut.

Fodder production results in high rates of removal of plant material from the paddock (and the farm), leading to nutrient depletion and on some soil types, soil acidification. A fodder production enterprise should include regular soil testing to determine an effective fertiliser and soil amendment program.

The profitability of lucerne fodder will vary from season to season, and within the season, depending on the effects of weather and returns on stock enterprises and relationships with buyers. Growers of lucerne fodder must be prepared to accept price fluctuations or consider good on-farm storage facilities to store hay during high supply times.

Seed

Lucerne seed is a high value crop, which carries more risk than many other agricultural ventures. The publication Agronomic Support Manual for Lucerne Seed Production describes two main areas of risk faced by lucerne seed growers. 

On farm risks include the poor timing of operations, poor preparation and operation of harvest equipment, poor weed management, insect infestations, and incorrect isolation of the seed crop from other lucerne crops. Any of these factors can reduce quality or even jeopardise certification.

Environmental risks include rainfall at harvest, extreme heat or cold at critical development stages, bees being drawn to other flowering crops or native trees at pollination time, all of which could contribute to reduced yield or damaged seed.

The marketing of certified lucerne seed is challenging to the extent that growers must build good relationships with the processor (cleaner) and/or seed company to secure a contract, however contracts are for several years (generally six) which does offer some security. However, the returns to growers will be determined by the quality of the seed delivered, and affected by currency exchange rates and supply and demand on the international market.

Regulatory considerations

The standard regulatory considerations that apply to all Australian farms, including laws applying to chemical use and management, occupational health and safety, and transport (including machinery movements and the loading/unloading of harvested product), also apply to lucerne pasture, fodder and seed production operations.

Seed producers have additional responsibilities if producing certified seed, to ensure they comply with international certification systems, managed by OECD or AOSCA.

Publications

Publications/information

Lucerne factsheet produced by Pastures Australia

How to grow lucerne seed on the website of Lucerne Australia

Lucerne varieties NSW DPI Primefact 1306

Lucerne – the plant and its establishment on the website of Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia

Management and utilisation of established lucerne stands on the website of Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia

Lucerne Guidelines for Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia Bulletin 4785 (2009)

Economic Analysis of the Australian Lucerne Seed Industry (2008)

Producing Quality Lucerne Hay RIRDC publication 08-101 (2008)

Producing quality lucerne hay: project summary RIRDC publication 12-102 (2012)

Agronomic Support Manual for Lucerne Seed Production RIRDC publication 10-106 (2011)

Lucerne varieties NSW Department of Primary Industries

Successful silage TopFodder silage manual NSW Department of Primary Industries

Image Gallery

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A paddock of Lucerne

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Harvesting lucerne

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Lucerne seed