In Australia, farmers feed lucerne hay to cattle and horses. It's sometimes called alfalfa in different parts of the world, mainly in North America, and it is a highly nutritious forage.
The lucerne plant is a legume and a member of the pea family - but interestingly, it's not native to the UK. However, animal feedstuffs made from it are widely used in this country.
Deriving from the Mediterranean, lucerne is grown worldwide, including in the UK, for its nutritional value and high protein content. It’s also very digestible and palatable for poultry.
Hay is one of the animal feeding materials developed from lucerne which is suitable for many different species.
Is Alfalfa the Same as Lucerne Hay?
In some parts of the world, like North America, lucerne hay is called alfalfa, but it's the same plant.
In the UK, chopped alfalfa forms the base of a high-fibre-based horse feed with the brand name Alfa. This is not hay but a type of horse feed with a name derived from the word ‘Alfalfa’.
What’s the Difference Between Grass Hay and Lucerne?
First, lucerne hay has a high protein content, significantly more than the grass equivalent.
Protein levels are 15% to 21% on average. Compare this to grass hay with an average protein value of 10% or lower.
Protein is essential for optimal health in all species, but it's particularly important for egg-laying birds. The eggs are much tastier, too!
Grass hay typically contains less than 1% calcium, depending on the grasses sown. Lucerne hay averages around 1.28% calcium.
Grass hay comes out ahead of lucerne in the fibre stakes with over 30% fibre value compared to a 25% content on average.
Working animals like horses and dairy cows need calories, and lucerne hay offers an energy range of 1.5 to 2.5 Mcal/kg. The equivalent volume of grass hay is lower in calories.
However, some animals need fibre without weight gain, so sometimes grass hay is the better option, as lucerne hay can be too calorie dense and lead to weight issues and other health problems.
Is Lucerne Hay Good for Poultry?
The good news is that alfalfa or lucerne is suitable to feed to poultry, and chickens eat it in the form of pellets and alfalfa sprouts, as well as hay.
Lucerne hay is good for poultry with high protein and calcium levels. It also contains Vitamins A and E and the minerals potassium, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron.
It can be fed alongside regular chicken feed but should not be a replacement for a balanced proprietary poultry diet. As well as a valuable food source, it also adds enrichment through variety and encourages foraging.
Should I Feed My Poultry Lucerne Hay?
Poultry can struggle to eat the long, dry fibres, so if you choose lucerne, it does need to be soft rather than coarse and stalky. This is easier for the birds to eat compared to a grass-based equivalent.
Lucerne has thin stalks and plenty of leafy material. When the plant is dried, it's easier for the chickens to digest - and they like the taste.
Feed alfalfa in conservative quantities; otherwise, the birds can suffer from digestive problems. It should sit alongside the chickens’ regular diet.
Introduce any new feed to the chickens gradually over several weeks to allow the poultry’s digestive system to acclimatise. Just a handful here and there twice a week!
There are different ways to feed lucerne hay, loose on the ground or in a net, or poultry keepers can leave a whole bale in the chicken coop, acting as a perch and an exciting food source. The chickens will peck at the insects, which naturally gravitate toward the bale.
Always keep an eye on how much the chickens are eating, and reduce the volume accordingly if they seem to be going off their chicken feed in preference to the hay.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Lucerne Grown in the UK?
Lucerne is grown successfully in the UK. Despite its Mediterranean origins, it is tolerant of winter temperatures in the British Isles but only does well in certain soil types.
It's a deep-rooted crop, so it will tolerate drought conditions, likely an increasing feature of UK summers.
Whether your poultry keeping is large-scale commercial or niche organic production, happy hens can enjoy dietary variety and the chance to forage different foodstuffs.
Shop Dalton Engineering’s poultry enrichment products, designed to maximise flock health and welfare and encourage good yield.