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11 tips for growing lucerne


Often regarded as the king of fodder crops, lucerne is a reliable, deep rooted perennial legume suited to dryland and irrigation systems across a wide range of soil types and climatic conditions.

Lucerne’s main production periods are spring, summer and autumn producing high protein, highly digestible feed whether it is for grazing, silage or hay making.To get the most out of your lucerne stand, good management is critical and starts even before sowing. These are our top 11 tips for giving your lucerne stand the best start.

1: Soil test and choosing the right paddock

A soil test is recommended before sowing lucerne as it will not tolerate acid soils with high aluminium. Soil pH (CaCl2) should be above 5.5. If the soil is acidic (less than 5.5), then lime is recommended to raise the pH level.

Lucerne requires free draining soil types and does not like waterlogged conditions.

2. Time of sowing

Temperate: For higher rainfall southern regions, successful spring sowing of lucerne is achievable. This is due to control of winter weeds and rising soil and air temperature aiding establishment. 

Dryland: Autumn sowing is recommended in low to medium rainfall regions where the majority of annual rainfall occurs in winter.

3. Seed bed preparation and sowing

Weed control through spraying of glyphosate is recommended to achieve a knockdown. For autumn sowing lucerne, spray topping in the previous spring to reduce seed set of annual weeds before the autumn is another option. 

If the soil test suggests the pH needs to be raised, incorporation of lime can occur; this starts the process to turn the paddock into a fine, firm, weed free seed bed. Pre-emergent herbicide such as Trifluralin can be used at sowing to control weeds to give the lucerne the best chance to establish. Lucerne can also be direct drilled when there is adequate soil moisture.

Heather in DLF Seeds lucerne

4. Sowing depth 

Lucerne does not establish well from being sown too deep. The seed should be covered by 1-2 cm of soil. Using a roller after sowing is important to get good seed soil contact on lighter soils.

5. Seed treatments

Treating lucerne seed is recommended in any situation for successful establishment. Seed treatments for lucerne include applying Rhizobia to the seed to aid nodulation of lucerne roots. Apron® XL fungicide and Poncho® Plus insecticide are also applied to provide each plant the best possible start to establish. This treatment is known as Superstrike® seed treatment.

6. Fertiliser requirements at sowing

Lucerne requires phosphorus and nitrogen at sowing to aid strong establishment. Single super phosphate at 250-300 kg/ha or M.A.P or D.A.P fertiliser at 80-100 kg/ha is recommended to be drilled with the seed.

7. Select the variety that best suits your needs

Consider the following three questions when deciding which variety to sow:
  • What will be its main use (grazing, hay production or both)?
  • How long do you want the lucerne stand to persist?
  • When do you need the feed most?
DLF Seeds Warrego GT6 lucerne

Semi winter dormant (5): Persistent stands with slow winter growth. In comparison to winter active types (6-7), semi winter dormant (5) varieties are well suited to grazing and quality hay production due to a lower crown and a semi-prostrate but denser growth than winter active types (6-7). See Stamina® GT5 for information on DLF Seeds, semi winter dormant lucerne.

Winter active (6-7): Tend to have smaller crowns with an erect growth that provides some winter growth (providing suitable temperatures). Although a multi purpose stand that provides quality hay production and grazing opportunities, strict rotational grazing management is required as winter active (6-7) lucerne varieties are comparatively less tolerant to grazing than semi winter dormant (5) varieties. See Warrego GT6 and Titan 7 for information on DLF Seeds, winter active lucernes.

Highly winter active (8-10): Good winter growth with an upright growth habit. Vigorous at establishment and fast recovery from cutting or grazing. High production for at least three years, making them a great option in cropping rotations. Strict rotational grazing management is required as highly winter active (8-10) lucerne varieties are comparatively less tolerant to grazing than semi winter dormant (5) and winter active (6-7) lucerne. See Torrens GT8 and Titan 9 for information on DLF Seeds, highly winter active lucernes.

IMAGE: Torrens GT8 however provides growers with increased persistence compared to traditional highly winter active varieties due to its grazing tolerance and below ground budding trait (demonstrated in image).


8. Top dressing of fertiliser

A soil test will assist in making fertiliser decisions for your lucerne stand. Annual applications of phosphorus, potassium and lime (Ca) are commonly applied to lucerne stands as these are the major nutrients removed in grazing and hay lucerne stands.

The table demonstrates the amount of key nutrients removed from one tonne dry matter of lucerne hay. Nitrogen is not normally applied as lucerne can fix nitrogen during the growing season.

DLF SEEDS This table demonstrates the amount of key nutrients removed from one tonne dry matter of lucerne hay.

9. Choose a new variety to reduce disease

Most lucerne diseases are infectious and are caused by living organisms such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes and mycoplasma-type organisms. They penetrate plant tissue by piercing the outer membrane of the plant. Most common fungal diseases in southern grown regions are damping off, root rot, crown rot and common and pepper leaf spot. Choosing new varieties that offer better disease resistance will help in prevention of these diseases occurring and therefore increases overall yields and persistence of your lucerne stand.

10. Treat for pests as soon as they appear

Lucerne pests include red legged earthmite (RLEM), lucerne flea and aphids which can quickly kill seedlings. Spray with registered insecticides as soon as they appear. Certain insecticides can be tank mixed with glyphosate prior to sowing to protect the initial few weeks of a lucerne crop.

In recent years slugs have been a real problem in decimating newly sown pastures, crops and lucerne. Heavy soil types, summer rains and reduced tillage are all factors which promote the build-up of slug populations. Inspect potential paddocks prior to sowing and if found contact your local agronomist for control of this devastating pest.

11. Manage for persistence

The persistence of a stand of lucerne will depend largely on the way it is managed. Winter dormant varieties (because of their lower crown) are generally more suited to grazing than winter active types. When grazing winter active varieties, care must be taken not to eat out the crown. Strict rotational grazing must be employed and a recovery period must be allowed for the lucerne to regrow prior to future grazing.

It is generally accepted the optimum management strategy for maximum productivity and persistence of lucerne in its first year is to have the stand at least 20 cm high and preferably 10% flowering before first cut or grazing. This allows adequate root reserves to be laid down for strong regrowth after cutting. Another good indication on when to first cut or graze young stands (or old stands) is to look for the appearance of 2 cm long new shoots (secondary regrowth) from the crown of the plant. This may be a more reliable indicator than the 10% flowering yardstick.

Lucerne is an ideal crop for many farmers and by following the 11 tips identified above will help farmers achieve a productive and profitable lucerne stand.

For detailed information on lucerne management, click here or get in touch with your local DLF Seeds Sales Agronomist.