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
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.
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.
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.