Improving alfalfa-based livestock forage production systems using life cycle assessment

Although modern agricultural production is more efficient than ever at supplying food and feed to a growing world population, there is an increasing realization that environmental sustainability is a key component of long-term food production. Consumers continue to indicate that they want food products that minimize environmental impacts and the increasing popularity of organic products demonstrates that consumers are willing to pay more for foods that claim other benefits. Additionally, regulators have already begun to consider sustainability in the agricultural sector and agricultural-based biofuels are being evaluated based on their greenhouse gas emissions. 

For most food products, the largest area where additional sustainability concerns can be addressed is on the farm. Although the importance of alfalfa is often overshadowed by major commodity grain crops, integrating alfalfa into crop rotations has the potential to improve the overall environmental footprint of crop production systems as well provide agronomic benefits to rotational crops. Alfalfa has been shown to decrease losses due to weeds, insects, and disease, decrease nitrate leaching, increase soil quality and provide nitrogen, in addition to other yield-boosting rotational effects to subsequent crops. Alfalfa also provides ecosystem service benefits in the form of decreased erosion, increased wildlife habitat, and improved water quality.

In order to show the full potential for alfalfa to enhance sustainability in a specific region, a comprehensive examination using multiple suggested improvements in alfalfa and crop management practices would be helpful. This can be accomplished using a system-level modeling approach that integrates data at multiple levels within the alfalfa-dairy forage system. The research in this proposal is designed to gather regionally relevant data on existing alfalfa production methods in the Upper Midwest and examine the potential environmental impacts from changing those methods on alfalfa cropping and dairy systems. The changes evaluated will also be examined in the context of their financial impacts and the acceptability of potential changes to alfalfa production systems and crop rotations. It will be based on data specific to alfalfa production in the Upper Midwest region and it will bring together researchers with expertise in agronomy, dairy, soils, agricultural economics, and life cycle assessment.


  • Evaluate regional production practices
  • Develop scenarios to optimize alfalfa's benefits for cropping and dairy systems
  • Develop LCA, Soil Carbon/Nutrient Flux, and Economic Models
  • Evaluate and disseminate results


Funding for this project is provided by the USDA National Institute on Food and Agriculture.


Joshua Gamble and John Grabber from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Jared Goplen from U of MN Extension, and Brad Heins from the WCROC.