Alfalfa, the "Queen of the Forages," is the fourth most valuable field crop ($8.8 billion) in the United States behind corn ($51.7), soybeans ($40.9), and wheat ($9.1) and is the most widely cultivated perennial forage crop in the world. The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) estimates the value of alfalfa hay and haylage produced in the United States at $8.8 billion per year. There are 16.8 million acres of alfalfa cut for hay with an average yield of 3.45 tons per acre. The estimated value of alfalfa hay is $128.25 per ton. In 2016, alfalfa meal, cubes, and compressed hay were exported to other countries with a value of more than $820 million to the U.S. economy. Alfalfa is sometimes grown in mixtures with forage grasses and other legumes. The acreage of all hay harvested, including alfalfa, per year is 53.4 million with an estimated value of $17.5 billion (including haylage).

Alfalfa seed is primarily grown in the northwestern areas of the U.S. in the states of California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Washington, and Wyoming. The approximate production of alfalfa seed in 2015 for the U.S. is 50.5 million pounds. A fringe benefit to the production of alfalfa seed is the production of honey from bees. In the U.S., $327.1 million dollars worth of honey is produced each year.

Alfalfa is also important due to its high biomass production. The record annual yield of one acre of alfalfa is 12 tons/acre (Delaware State College) without irrigation and 24 tons/acre (University of Arizona) with irrigation. Alfalfa is a widely adapted crop, energy-efficient, and an important source of biological nitrogen fixation. The average acre of alfalfa will fix about 300 lbs of nitrogen per year, thus reducing the need to apply expensive nitrogen fertilizers. The nitrogen provided by alfalfa can sustain the following corn crop and in many soils can also provide all or most of the nitrogen needed for the second year of corn. Cultivation of alfalfa also improves soil structure, water penetration, and breaks pest and pathogen cycles such as the corn rootworm. The deep taproot of alfalfa allows plants to acquire water from deep within the soil profile, making it more productive during drought periods than shallow rooted annual crops.

As a perennial crop, alfalfa plants are actively growing in early spring and late fall, when annual crop plants are absent from the landscape. Cultivation of alfalfa near waterways and on slopes prevents loss of topsoil and nutrients to the environment. The nitrate lost to tile drainage in an alfalfa field is close to zero while nitrate lost from corn and soybean averages 80 pounds/acre.

One of the most important characteristics of alfalfa is its high nutritional quality as animal feed. Alfalfa produces more protein per acre than any other crop. Alfalfa hay contains 15-22% crude protein and is also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. Specifically, alfalfa contains vitamins A, D, E, K, U, C, B1, B2, B6, B12, niacin, panthothanic acid, inositol, biotin, and folic acid. Alfalfa also contains the following minerals: phosphorus, calcium, potassium, sodium, chlorine, sulfur, magnesium, copper, manganese, iron, cobalt, boron, and molybdenum and trace elements such as nickel, lead, strontium and palladium. Alfalfa is also directly consumed by humans in the form of alfalfa sprouts.

Alfalfa is used primarily as animal feed for dairy cows and beef cattle, but also for horses, sheep, chickens, turkeys and other farm animals including fish in aquaculture and aquaponics. The value of milk, meat, wool, and all other animal products is $189 billion, thus the total value of animal products plus the value of hay reach the $207 billion level. This far exceeds the combined value of all other high value crops.

In addition to the traditional uses of alfalfa as an animal feed, alfalfa is beginning to be used as a bio-fuel for the production of electricity, bioremediation of soils with high levels of nitrogen, and as a factory for the production of industrial enzymes such as lignin peroxidase, alpha-amylase, cellulase, and phytase.

An excellent resource of information on alfalfa is the monograph titled: Alfalfa and Alfalfa Improvement, edited by A.A. Hanson, D. K. Barnes and R.R. Hill, Jr. and published by The American Society of Agronomy, Monograph number 29, published in 1988. ISBN 0-89118-094-X

The statistics used here were obtained from the 2017 USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service website at

Last Updated: March 2017