Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is an herb that originated near Iran and was first discovered by the Arabs. They dubbed the plant the "Father of All Foods", but it is also been known as the "Queen of Forages". They fed alfalfa to their horses claiming it made them swift and strong. It grows to about 3 feet and has blue-violet flowers that bloom from July to September. Related forms and species are found in the wild scattered all over central Asia and into Siberia. As early as 490 B.C. Roman writers described Alfalfa as feed for horses and other animals. It wasn't introduced into the eastern United States until 1736 by colonists.
Alfalfa is a perennial plant, living from five to twelve years, depending on variety and climate. Growing to a height of 1 metre, it resembles clover with clusters of small purple flowers. It also has a deep root system sometimes stretching to 4.5 meters. This makes it very resilient, especially to droughts. Alfalfa is native to Europe and it widely grown throughout the world as forage for cattle. Like other legumes, it has the ability to fix nitrogen, producing a high-protein feed regardless of available soil nitrogen. It is most often harvested as hay, less frequently as pasture or haylage. Its wide cultivation beginning in the seventeenth century was an important advance in European agriculture. Its nitrogen-fixing ability and use as animal feed greatly improved agricultural efficiency. When grown on soils where it is well-adapted, alfalfa is the highest yielding forage plant. Alfalfa is one of the few plants that exhibit autotoxicity. Alfalfa seed will not grow in existing stands of alfalfa because of this. Therefore, alfalfa fields must be plowed down or rotated before reseeding.
Used primarily as a hay crop, it has the highest feeding value of all commonly grown hay crops when harvested at late bud or early flower stage of maturity. It is low in fiber and high in energy when cut prior to early bloom, and is also an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Because of this it is prized as a primary component in dairy cattle rations and important feed for horses, beef cattle, sheep, and milking goats.
One of the most important characteristics of alfalfa is it's high nutritional quality as animal feed. Alfalfa contains between 15 to 22% crude protein as well as an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. Specifically, alfalfa contains vitamins A, D, E, K, U, C, B1, B2, B6, B12, Niacin, Panthothanic acid, Inocitole, 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. According to the International Sprout Growers there are approximately $250 million dollars worth of sprouts sold in North America. Alfalfa juice is used in some health food products. Alfalfa hay is used primarily as animal feed for dairy cows but also for horses, beef cattle, sheep, chickens, turkeys and other farm animals. 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.
Vitamin K is found in many green leafy plants, but is especially abundant in alfalfa. The herb has therefore been effectively used in treatment of vitamin K disorders in man. When the delivery of bile to the bowel is hindered, as in obstructive jaundice or biliary fistula, a bleeding disorder may arise. Other bleeding disorders may result from the use of artificial formulas to feed newborns, protracted antibiotic therapy, pancreatic insufficiency, chronic diarrhea and steatorrhea, and from the misuse of anticoagulants, aspirin, and anticonvulsant drugs. The saponins in alfalfa have been shown to be antifungal. This activity is concentrated mainly in the medicagenic acid fraction. Alfalfa has shown some activity against tuberculosis bacteria, while aqueous and volatile extracts of alfalfa are antibacterial against gram negative bacteria. Basic proteins (histones) displaying antitumor activity without undesired side effects occur in alfalfa. These substances contain high levels of l-lysine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid. Tumor stimulating fractions were also found, containing large amount of l-arginine. Tricin has been isolated from alfalfa and found to cause smooth muscle relaxation in guinea pig intestinal tissue, and to have some slight estrogenic property. The nutrient content of alfalfa is one of the richest known, making it a useful livestock fodder and a highly recommended herb for the human diet as well. The hypocholesterolemic effect of alfalfa root saponins has been thoroughly established. Alfalfa root saponins can inhibit increases in blood cholesterol levels by 25% in experimental animals fed a high cholesterol diet.