To the question, “Which alfalfa variety should I plant?” Shannon Mueller unfurls a colorful multi-fold pamphlet listing an alphabet soup of more than 250 alfalfa varieties sold in California, and facetiously says, “Pick one.”

The University of California Cooperative Extension agronomy farm advisor for Fresno County used this to admit that selecting an alfalfa variety for a new stand can seem like a daunting task.

It need not be, Mueller told growers and others at an alfalfa and forage field day at the UC Kearney Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Calif.

You start with selecting varieties with dormancy ratings that fit your geographic location. Varieties are rated by numbers 1-11. These numbers identify a variety’s growth habits in the fall in response to decreasing temperatures and day length. Fall dormancy influences stand persistence, adaptation, and performance. The lower the number, the less growth in the fall and more winter hardiness in a variety.

Since the Central Valley winter weather would not kill a stand of alfalfa, varieties with dormancy ratings of 7, 8 or 9 fit in the San Joaquin Valley.

Ferreting out correct dormancy varieties for your area should narrow the choices to perhaps 50 from a list of 250. Breaking them down by yield using variety trials from UC, crop consultants or seed companies likely will reduce the possibilities to 10 to 15.

“Look at the top third in yield in trials for your area,” to reach that list of options, she says, adding it is good to evaluate results over several years since an alfalfa stand will persist for three or more years in a hot climate. It will persist far longer than that in the intermountain regions of the state.

Alfalfas are bred for pest tolerance. Be aware of potential pests in your alfalfa to select the right resistance trait, she suggests. Stand persistence is another evaluation point.

Alfalfa hay quality is a big issue with as many opinions as to what makes quality as there are varieties. It can be variety specific, but Mueller believes crop management (irrigation, cutting schedule and fertilization) has more influence on quality than the variety.

When the selections for new stands have been made, plant small test plots to evaluate your selections on your own farm, she says.

And don’t cut corners on seed cost. Spending $50 per acre more for certified, quality seed could return $500 per acre more in income over the life of a stand. That extra for seed “could be money well-spent,” she says.