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General guidelines for the cultivation of lucerne: preparation of soil and seed Afrikaans | Xhosa

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The lucerne plant hails from the Near East and Central Asia where its has been cultivated from as early as 1400-1200 BC. In 1753 lucerne was classified as Medicago Sativa, but it is also known as Alfalfa, which means "best fodder". Lucerne is the king of fodder, since it yields large volumes of high quality hay which is rich in protein.

Lucerne belongs to the legume family, which means that in symbiosis with rhizobia it is able to fixate nitrogen. Lucerne is cultivated under irrigation as well as on dry land, but in the Northern Cape it is found mostly on irrigation schemes like Vaalharts and Lower Orange.

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Before considering the cultivation of lucerne it is necessary to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the soil to ensure that it would be possible to grow lucerne economically. Lucerne prefers deep, well-drained soil of about 1,2 m, which must be free of impervious layers.

Lucerne is a semi-permanent crop which covers the entire soil surface, so that errors made while establishing a planting are difficult to rectify.

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Suitable soils must be ploughed deep, and impervious layers must be broken up with implements such as the modified ripper to ensure sufficient root penetration.

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The proper soil fertility will ensure that a planting establishes itself swiftly and vigorously, and that it remains productive. For every ton of dry material, lucerne withdraws the following from the soil:
  • 2,7 kg phosphate
  • 21,0 kg potassium
  • 13,0 kg calcium
  • 2,7 kg magnesium
  • 2,7 kg sulphur

It is for these reasons that a comprehensive analysis of the soil is necessary to ensure that the necessary nutrients are indeed present and accessible.

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It is better to avoid brackish soils, since planting in such soils will result in poor germination and poor growth. 

The one factor to which more unsuccessful plantings of lucerne can be attributed than to any other, is inadequate preparation of the seed bed.

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The seed of lucerne is very fine-grained, and therefore it requires a fine seed-bed. Large clods must be crushed to provide a fine seed-bed. A superior seed-bed will ensure a good stand.

If the soil is very loose, it should be compacted slightly with a roller to ensure better contact between seed and soil.

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There are various lucerne cultivars currently available, and there are even types that are winter-active, such as CUF101. An example of a cultivar that is not winter-active is SA Standard. The choice of cultivar would be determined by the basic needs, as well as by the climate and the soil type which have to be considered. It is advisable to consult with an expert in one’s region, who would be able to help find a suitable cultivar for one’s requirements.

However, in order to avoid major disappointments it is essential to plant only certified seed. Lucerne seed is expensive, and therefore one must only use seed which will ensure economically justifiable yields.

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Lucerne is a legume, and in symbiosis with Rhizobium bacteria it can provide for all its own nitrogen needs. It is very important therefore to inoculate the seed with Rhizobium bacteria before it is planted.

The directions on the packaging of the inoculate must be followed meticulously to ensure that the correct amount is used - 2 packets per one 25 kg bag of seed is sufficient.

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Care must be taken to use a good adhesive medium, for example norilose, to ensure that the inoculate adheres well to the seed.

A sugar solution may also be used.

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Seed is first mixed thoroughly with inoculate and left in the shade to dry before it is sown.

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When large quantities of seed are being mixed, a drum, or even a 

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concrete mixer may be used.

K Lategan
ELSENBURG / UPINGTON agricultural research station