Alfalfa Meal: From Feedstock To Fertilizer

Alfalfa is a staple among livestock farmers as nutrient-rich feed. But did you know that alfalfa meal is also a great organic fertilizer?

High-quality alfalfa meal is generally weed-free. It adds nitrogen and trace minerals to your soil. Alfalfa meal also contains a natural fatty-acid growth stimulant called trianconatol.

You can use it in place of other fertilizers or in conjunction with them. It’s often used to improve the tilth of the soil as well, so it has dual purpose.

I’m sure by now you’re asking “what is alfalfa meal, and how do I get started with it?” So let’s break down this wonderful soil amendment and get you to work!

Our Favorite Alfalfa Meal Products:

What Is Alfalfa Meal?

Alfalfa field
An alfalfa field in full flower. Source: Sierragoddess

Alfalfa itself is fantastic for your garden. As a plant material, it provides not only a good NPK boost, but lots of micronutrients. Many people use alfalfa hay as a mulch material as it acts like a natural fertilizer layer and weed blocker.

But alfalfa meal is a bit more processed than straight alfalfa hay might be. They begin by drying out alfalfa plants (Medicago sativa), then grind them into a fine powder. If it’s going to be used as animal feed, it’s fermented first to make it more palatable to ruminant livestock. It may then be pressed into pellets or cubes.

Some forms of alfalfa meal are also produced from fermented alfalfa seeds. These are then dried out and ground into a fine powder as well.

As a livestock feed, its use has been dated as far back as 3500 BC, where it’s believed to have been grown in Iran. Its use as a fertilizer appeared much later. Once people discovered that it enriched their soil, it became popular very quickly!

Alfalfa meal fertilizers have multiple benefits in the garden. Alfalfa meal NPK is usually balanced, somewhere around 3-1-2. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s many trace elements in this meal which make plants thrive.

Vitamins such as A, B, and E are present in the meal, as well as minerals like magnesium and iron. It contains sixteen amino acids which play roles in healthy plant growth.

Best of all, it has naturally-occurring triacontanol. This naturally-occurring growth hormone stimulates healthy root and stem development in young plants.

In essence, this wonderful meal acts like a multivitamin for your plants. It helps kickstart growth through the quick release of nutrients into the soil. Also, it decomposes fast, helping improve soil tilth and water retention.

How To Make Alfalfa Meal

Before you can make alfalfa meal, you need to grow alfalfa. That, in and of itself, can be a wonderful benefit for your garden!

Alfalfa is an excellent cover crop. Not only does it grow fast to act as a weed blocker, but it also puts down extremely deep roots. Those roots act like natural tillers, breaking up clay soil and aerating it.

It’s surprisingly easy to grow a crop of alfalfa. Broadcast your seeds over the surface of your soil. You can cover them with a thin layer of soil or just water them in. They’re slow to get started, but once they start putting up foliage, they can reach 3 feet in height.

Once they’re at full size and have started to flower, alfalfa plants should be cut down and fermented. This fermentation process is anaerobic, or done without air. During fermentation, the sugars in the alfalfa convert to acids like lactic acid.

Silage, or haylage as alfalfa silage is sometimes called, is the finished product. After about two weeks of anaerobic conditions, the natural sugars break down. The resulting haylage can be used as animal feed, or dried and ground into meal.

Once ground into meal, it is often pressed into pellets or cubes as an easy-to-store feed stock. This also makes it easier to store for gardeners. It’s susceptible to rodents like mice, so it’s important to store your meal, pellets, or cubes safely.

Alfalfa Meal Fertilizer Benefits

Alfalfa harvest
Alfalfa can be tilled directly into the soil, or harvested and turned to meal. Source: tacowitte

As I said earlier, one of the best benefits of alfalfa meal fertilizer is triacontanol. This naturally-occurring component helps to promote healthy root development in plants. It also improves the yield in crops, aids in nutrient uptake, and fixes the nitrogen in the soil.

As an additive, alfalfa meal is great for another purpose too. It’s a natural compost pile booster. If your pile is starting to cool, the addition of some alfalfa meal can kickstart the heating process.

Alfalfa meal is rich in micronutrients. A tremendous amount of trace minerals can be found in this meal, all beneficial to your garden.

If you are growing your own alfalfa, you have the added benefit of the plant loosening your soil. It puts down very deep roots that help to aerate and break up clay-like soils.

Alfalfa tends towards the neutral range of pH, and can

Absorbing much of its own weight in water, the alfalfa meal also works to hold moisture in the soil. It’s not as effective at this as other plant matter may be, but it does help improve moisture retention.

One thing which alfalfa meal is regularly believed to do is to control harmful nematode populations. If you have root knot nematodes, there’s very few ways to eliminate them. Adding beneficial nematodes will do it, but alfalfa meal in heavy doses can also reduce nematode populations.

Alfalfa Meal Fertilizer Drawbacks

As it breaks down, alfalfa meal produces heat. Now, this is fantastic if you’re trying to heat up your compost tumbler! But too much alfalfa meal worked into your planters may cause the soil to heat.

Careful application of alfalfa meal can reduce the heating risk. But what other disadvantages does alfalfa have in the garden?

Pelleted or cubed alfalfa meal is used as a feed for livestock. It also acts as a feed for rodents. Mice, rats, rabbits, or other rodents may come search through your garden beds for alfalfa.

If rodents like field mice are a problem for you, use loose alfalfa meal instead of pelleted or cubed forms. Work it through the top layer of your soil. This will reduce the rodent population.

Also, alfalfa feedstock is often treated with molasses or other additives. While these additives won’t harm your garden, the sugars can speed bacterial growth. For beneficial bacteria, this is great! But those of us who’ve fought a bacterial plant disease may wish to wait, at least until the bad bacteria’s gone.

Cheaper grades of alfalfa meal may have seeds mixed in. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, you should be aware that you might have alfalfa sprouts if you buy low grades!

When watering in alfalfa meal fertilizer, it can cause matting or clumping. This may temporarily inhibit moisture penetration. Loosely mixing the soil through your fertilizer should prevent this problem.

Finally, as alfalfa pellets or cubes break down, they can turn brown and look unappetizing in a garden. You can simply hide them with some mulch if you’d like. Otherwise, soaking the pellets or cubes in water until they break apart is best. This allows you to evenly distribute the alfalfa meal.

Organic Alfalfa Meal Vs. Non-Organic: Which Is Better?

Alfalfa flowering
Alfalfa plants produce beautiful flowers as well as protein-rich foliage. Source: M. Martin Vicente

In recent years, there’s been a lot of concern about GMO crops and added chemicals. If you’re going for a purely organic garden, this may be something to be watchful for.

Much of the feedstock alfalfa is GMO alfalfa. “Roundup Ready” alfalfa is a strain of modified alfalfa which holds up well with pesticide use. While this means that they’re able to grow huge quantities with little pest damage, it has a drawback… it’s been treated with pesticides.

In small quantities, this doesn’t pose a major issue. However, over time the pesticides can build up in your soil. Plants may have a harder time germinating in pesticide-laden soils. More fertilizer may be needed to keep plants healthy.

As a general rule, I recommend using an organic form of alfalfa meal whenever possible. This prevents you from any potential pesticide pollution in your garden. Check the labels on your box or bag of meal to see if they’re OMRI-certified.

In the case of the average home gardener, this is seldom going to be a problem. But for someone with a small commercial garden, it’s best to be safe rather than sorry later!

How To Use Alfalfa Meal

There’s a few basic ways to apply alfalfa meal fertilizer.

For a light dosage, 12 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet is recommended. Medium is 25 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Heavy application is 50 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Adjust to suit your plant’s needs and the condition of your soil.

The alfalfa meal can be placed on top of the soil or worked into the top few inches. Generally, it’s best to mulch overtop the meal if it’s top-layered. This keeps it from drying and blowing away.

If you’re starting with pelletized or cubed alfalfa meal, you can sometimes use them as they are. Smaller-sized pellets like rabbit feed break down quickly when exposed to water.

Larger-sized cubes or pellets, like those meant for horses, should be broken down first. Place some in a 5-gallon bucket and add water to cover. Wait for at least an hour, then use a potato masher to break apart the pellets or cubes.

Drain off the liquid from soaking, but don’t dump it out. Read the section on alfalfa meal tea for more information! The meal can be worked through the soil as normal.

Only have a couple plants that need fertilizing? No problem. Depending on the level of fertilization needed, you can use between 1/4 and 1/2 cup of fertilizer per plant. For larger plants like full-grown rosebushes, use 1 cup of alfalfa meal around the plant’s base.

Making Alfalfa Tea Fertilizer

To make alfalfa meal tea, use four cups of alfalfa in either meal or pelleted form to 5 gallons of water. I like to do this in a large bucket.

Be sure your water isn’t chlorinated. If all you have available is chlorinated water, fill the bucket 3 days in advance. Stir it at least twice a day. This allows the chlorine to evaporate off.

If you wish to add some extra magnesium content, you can add 1 cup of Epsom salt to the 5-gallon bucket as well. Epsom salt breaks down into magnesium and sulfur, both of which are beneficial to plants. The sulfur will also help prevent snails and slugs from coming around your plants.

Mix all ingredients well in your bucket and put on a lid. Stir at least once or twice per day and let it steep for seven days. This allows the mixture to ferment and develop beneficial bacteria.

Alfalfa tea for plants can be used on a weekly basis as a good fertilizer. You can use it as a foliar spray or a soil drench, as preferred.

Even if you’re just breaking up alfalfa cubes in your water, keep the resulting water! You can allow that to ferment down into alfalfa tea as well. It’s a wonderful fertilizer in its own right.

Where To Buy Alfalfa Meal

Alfalfa meal is widely available, depending on whether you want pressed or loose meal. Loose meal is most common in garden centers. Pelletized alfalfa meal is available at pet shops and feed stores. Cubed is most common at feed stores or livestock suppliers.

Let’s talk about some of the different options available to you, and how to make these work for your garden!

Loose Alfalfa Meal

alfalfa meal
Alfalfa meal has been dried and ground into a fine particulate.

Powdered alfalfa meal is usually available for garden use. Ready to blend into your soil, it provides convenience and ease of use. It can be very dusty, so I recommend wearing a mask while applying it!

There’s many brands on the market, but of these, I’m going to highlight the following three, and I’ll explain why.

Dr. Earth Pure & Natural Alfalfa Meal is blended with 5 types of beneficial soil microbes. If you’re trying to build up living, healthy soil, this amendment will help! Guaranteed organic, you won’t have to worry about chemicals here.

Next up, we have Down To Earth Alfalfa Meal. This is purely organic alfalfa meal. No microbial amendments have been added to this mix. If you’re making alfalfa meal tea as a fertilizer, this is a great way to do it!

Finally, we’ve got Greenway Biotech’s alfalfa meal. Available in a large 15-pound bag, this provides a lot of meal for a reasonable price. This meal’s been fermented before drying and powdering, and is a quick-releasing fertilizer.

All three of these are great choices. But in these cases, they’re probably best for smaller spaces or indoor gardens. The loose alfalfa meal seems to be more expensive than pelletized or cubed is.

Those of us with much larger gardens do still have options, though! Let’s move on to the next type of alfalfa meal and go over its pros and cons.

Pelleted Alfalfa Meal

Let’s talk pellets. Normally, pelleted meal is used as feedstock. In some cases, such as reptiles, it’s also used as edible bedding.

Because of this, it’s important to be careful and to read the ingredients. The goal is to have pellets which are 100% alfalfa or very close to it. Small amounts of molasses or other binder agents are okay. They’ll break down, too!

Zilla Reptile Bedding and Litter is mostly alfalfa meal. It includes a small amount of rice bran, which acts as a binder. What I like about this is the fine pellet size. You can blend the pellets directly into the soil and allow them to break down with this one!

Rogue Quality Feeds Alfalfa Pellets are bulkier in size. These are easiest to use if softened and broken up in water. You can still blend small amounts of these into the soil directly. They’re GMO-free and high quality.

Finally, Oasis Organics Alfalfa Pellets come in a 50-pound bag. These are extremely high quality pellets, certified organic and GMO-free. The drawback to these is that they can be a bit pricey, but you get what you pay for!

With these pelleted feeds, there is a slight risk of alfalfa seed being in the pellets. It’s minor at best, and any sprouts can simply be turned under the soil.

You get much more quantity for your dollar with a pelleted alfalfa meal. It’s slightly more labor intensive to work with, but if you plan on making alfalfa tea anyway, it’s a great option!

Cubed Alfalfa Meal

Alfalfa cubes
Alfalfa cubes are an inexpensive way to get a lot of compacted alfalfa meal. Source: Juan Lauriente

If you go to your local feed store, you’ll likely find many different options for alfalfa cubes. Some will be local brands, where others will be large, national brands. Generally, these are used as horse feed, but may also be available for small animals like rabbits.

I highly recommend Standlee Hay Company Certified Alfalfa Cubes. What’s certified in these is that they are noxious weed-free. To a gardener, that’s of major importance! These have been ground and steamed under high heat to sterilize any seeds they contain.

Standlee Hay Company 40 Lb Cer Alfalfa Cubes
  • This Product Adds A Great Value
  • Product Is Highly Durable And Very Easy To Use
  • This Product Is Manufactured In United States

There’s many other brands out there, but some are a blend of timothy hay and alfalfa. Timothy hay doesn’t have the same fertilizer benefits as alfalfa does, so I don’t recommend it for this usage.

If you cannot find certified alfalfa cubes, you can use regular alfalfa cubes. You may have some weed seeds or alfalfa seeds in those, so be prepared to weed regularly.

With using alfalfa cubes, you have a lot more work involved. These are usually much too large to add directly to the soil. Break them up in much the same way as you would coconut coir by soaking in water until they fall apart.

Be sure to use both the water that you’ve soaked your cubes in and the alfalfa remnants in your garden!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are there other names for alfalfa?

A: Alfalfa is known botanically as Medicago sativa. It’s also referred to as lucerne or lucerne hay.

Q: Can you get the benefits of alfalfa without using meal, pellets, or cubes?

A: Yes! Grow a cover crop of alfalfa over your plant beds. Cut it back as it starts to flower, leaving the cut alfalfa on the soil surface as mulch. You should be able to cut and grow again a few times. A month before planting time, till it into the soil. The green matter will bulk up your soil and decompose to provide nutrients for your future plants.

Alfalfa’s a fantastic multivitamin for your garden, and every organic gardener should have a supply of meal on hand! Even if all you’re doing is making alfalfa meal tea, it’s worthwhile. Do you have a preferred form of alfalfa meal which you’ve used? Let us know in the comment section!

The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Johnny Harvill

Lorin Nielsen
Lifetime Gardener

Did this article help you? Yes No
× How can we improve it?
× Thanks for your feedback!

We're always looking to improve our articles to help you become an even better gardener.

While you're here, why not follow us on Facebook and YouTube? Facebook YouTube

Last update on 2019-01-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Leave a Comment