OK, so I'm a farmer at heart but living on a tiny suburban lot for now. I planted a small 4' x 8' plot of Ladak alfalfa this spring specifically to feed my chickens. I planted it VERY thick and I think every single seed came up. Right now it is at least 1 plant per square inch, would it be better to thin it some? I have kept it weeded too, so it is pure alfalfa. After finally getting all of the rabbits fenced out that kept mowing it down, it is now up to about 6-8" in height. The only real info I can find about growing and harvesting alfalfa is written for people planting acres to harvest for hay. I just want to cut mine and feed it fresh, smallish amounts at a time. Is it like most other plants in that it's safe to remove a third of the growth at any time? I have read that when it's harvested for hay they cut it to 1" tall to encourage basal shoots, would it be better for stand longevity to cut it real short like that less often, or can I cut lightly more frequently? Do I need to wait for it to get to "bud stage" or can I cut it anytime and expect good nutritional value? Any reason I can't feed it straight (I also have romaine lettuce, spinach and collards planted that I share with the girls). I do also buy a couple of alfalfa bales a year to give the girls to scratch around in ( a few flakes at a time) and they like pecking at it.
Growing & harvesting fresh alfalfa
A micro alfalfa field, cool. Experiment, find want works for you and your conditions. If I were doing it I'd cut it in 6"x 4' at the one inch high, swaths marching down the lenght of the 8'. That would give 16 cuttings. At one cutting a day that's 2 plus weeks. If cut 2 out of three days, its over three weeks, closer to what most farmers cut at. Frequency of the cut I think depends on what the needs and what is wanted out of it. Cutting it at one third of the stalk would leave two thirds to lay down and matte on the ground, slowing the growth. Longevity, well after a couple of seasons it might to worth it to work in some of the chicken manure and replant.
Yes, it's really just an experiment. but I LOVE gardening (and chickens!) so it's fun! I do like your idea of cutting 1/16th at a time down to 1"... the darn rabbits, when they had access, were practically mowing it down to ground level and it seemed to spring back ok. Stand longevity would of course be a plus, but I have a 5 lb. bag of seed so can replant if/when needed. The only bad thing about alfalfa is that it's allelopathic (at least to itself, not sure if to other plants... although it doesn't seem so) so once it's growing somewhere it's very hard to get seed started in the same spot. I'm gonna go out right now and make my first cutting, I'll try and let folks know how my mini alfalfa field works out.
Ok, here's an update on my alfalfa experiment. Yesterday I went out and cut (with a pair of scissors, by the handful) a swath about 6" wide and 2 feet long. Took me maybe 3-4 minutes, and I put it in a pan for the girls. They dove right on it, but I was a little concerned because they had the long stems still hanging out of their beaks. Now the stalks are very tender so I knew it wouldn't cause any real problems, but I just didn't like the look. So today when I cut some I just used the scissors to additionally chop each handful, which took maybe an extra 10 seconds per handful. That alfalfa adds up fast, within minutes I had about 3 cupfuls of chopped alfalfa and had only cut about a 6" x 18" swath. I even tasted it myself, it tastes pretty much like a bland lettuce or something, so I figure I might throw some in a salad for myself this evening. My cutting is not very scientific, I just grab a handful and snip, I think most of it's been cut at about 2". As fast as it grows (I did fertilize it with 10-10-10 slow-release fertilizer when I planted) I think this little patch could keep me and the girls in greens all season long! We'll have to see if the stems get tougher as time goes by. You can see in the front of the picture where I did my snipping.
Edited by ChickChickChicky - 6/2/12 at 2:19pm
Thought I'd post an update here in case anyone cares. I've been quite pleased with my alfalfa experiment. Every few days (whenever the mood hits me) I go cut some alfalfa for the girls... I'm down to 16 birds now since I lost 2 to the heat. Sometimes I give them straight alfalfa and sometimes I mix in other greens. Even though the stems have gotten tougher, the birds still love it. They scratch in it and eat up all the leaves and alot of the stems. The alfalfa has been easy to care for (basically NO care) and has stood up well to the heat. I've watered it a few times in this drought, but not because it looked like it needed it. It really is a "cut and come again" plant, I cut it down to a couple inches and it grows right back. I'm really happy I planted it, and I think the birds are too.
Thought some of you might like an update on my alfalfa experiment. As you can see from the photo below, the alfalfa came thru the winter well and is already about 4-6" tall. I have been letting the girls out on supervised grazing stints for awhile now, and the alfalfa stand is their favorite place, even before the compost pile (background) and kale and mangels that overwintered (foreground). I MIGHT try this summer to cut and dry some of it to save for over winter, but with good quality alfalfa bales usually plentiful and inexpensive around here I may not fool with drying it.
I just found this thread so I wanted to post too. I have an alfalfa field around my house that we own so we know it is not treated with chemicals. I just go out with my 2 year old daughter and we fill her red wagon up with it and feed it to our chickens and they love it. When I cut mine I cut it about an inch from the ground and as long as it is watered it come right back up with out any problem. I haven't had any problems with the stems. They seem to eat the more tender parts and leave the tougher stems. Mine have not started laying yet though so I do not know how it affects the taste of the eggs. Does anyone know about that?