Alfalfa is a crop that has been predominately grown in the western United States dating back to the the Gold Rush days. It is the third most valuable crop in the United States, behind corn and soybeans, but its true economic impact is much greater as it provides the high energy feed for dairy cows as well as other types of livestock. Production of Alfalfa has steadily increased because of its strong vitality, adaptability, high production level, superior quality and multiple uses. Alfalfa is a water intensive crop but, despite its high demand for water, alfalfa is also heralded for its high water-use efficiency (the amount of water required to produce a unit of crop yield). Because alfalfa is able to utilize nearly all of the water applied to its root zone, drip irrigation is the ideal method for meeting the crops watering demands.

Irrigating Alfalfa

Undoubtedly, traditional methods such as flood irrigation and center pivot brought farming to a new level of efficiency, but, just as the tractor revolutionized farming when it replaced the horse-drawn plow, the impact of SDI is bringing farming to a new level of efficiency through increased yields and decreased water, labor, fertilizer and energy costs.

Irrigating alfalfa is much different than irrigating most other crops because it is a perennial crop with a deep root system that can pull water from deep within the soil profile. Of the common agronomic crops, alfalfa consumes the largest amount of water. Its consumptive use can exceed 46 inches of water in a typical year. Among the many challenges, growers are faced with is the fact that stress caused by too much or too little water has a direct effect on alfalfa yields, crop growth, development and overall stand quality. It is for this reason that growers are always evaluating their irrigation methods to ensure they are using the most efficient method possible. Learn more about the different methods of irrigation being employed by today’s growers.

Today’s Alfalfa growers are primarily using three methods of irrigation: Flood, Center Pivot and Subsurface Drip irrigation.

  • Flood Irrigation (also called surface irrigation) uses the soil surface to flow water down the field from high to low areas. While it is still a common method of irrigation, it also requires an extraordinary amount of water, lacks in uniformity and is the most difficult to manage due to its dependence on soil properties and field topography. As water availability decreases, growers are finding that flood irrigation is not a sustainable method of irrigation for their operation.
  • Center Pivot Irrigation is a popular method of irrigation as it offers growers more efficient and more uniform delivery of water to the alfalfa crop when compared to flood irrigation. But, despite its efficiency when compared to flood, fields that use center pivot systems have increased weed pressure, are more susceptible to diseases due to wet foliage and lose water due to evaporation before it reaches the plant’s root zone. UC Davis research has also shown that the constraints on water application by center pivots, may result in the deep-rooting alfalfa plants not receiving the right amount of water for maximum growth.
  • Subsurface Drip Irrigation is a management tool that allows precise control over the root zone environment of an alfalfa crop. This control can be used to increase yields, reduce water needs and runoff or better manage crop quality. SDI enables optimal uniform soil moisture with outstanding aeration and directly disperses water and nutrients to the crop’s root zone.

Why Growers Choose Netafim

Whether producing alfalfa to sell to dairies or growing feed for livestock, growers are finding that the precision control provided by SDI provides better management of the crops root zone, resulting in increased crop yields, decreased input costs and increased operational efficiency of the farm.

Because alfalfa is a deep-rooted perennial forage crop, alfalfa has a very high yield potential and responds very well to subsurface drip irrigation (SDI), producing yield increases of 25% – 40%. Many growers find they can obtain one to three extra harvests per year using the same amount of water as with their previous irrigation system. Others can reduce water consumption and fertilizer use while maintaining the same yields. Alfalfa growers are choosing drip irrigation for many reasons, including:

  • Reduced Plant Stress
  • Improved Crop Uniformity
  • Longer Stand Life
  • Increased Field Access
  • Decreased Labor
  • Reduced fertilizer costs

Most importantly, growers are choosing SDI because the results are field proven.

Benefits of Subsurface Drip Irrigation

From the invention of the first hoe, to today’s GPS-based harvesters, every advancement in farming has been brought about in an effort to increase the efficiency of farming operations, provide farmers with better control over resources and produce higher yielding crops with less input costs. Providing growers with a management tool that increases crop yields, decreases input costs and increases operational efficiency, subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) just makes sense. Learn how SDI can make your farming operation more profitable.

Increased Crop Yields

Deep-rooting alfalfa is proven to respond exceedingly well to the application of water by SDI, resulting in vigorous, faster-growing plants and overall higher yield production, improving plant nutrition, reducing plant stress, improving water efficiency and decreasing weed growth.

  • Ability to spoon-feed precise measurements of fertilizer directly to the plants’ root zone.
  • Improved control allows for more consistent soil moisture levels eliminating stress caused by large swings in soil moisture, leading to healthier growth and higher yields.
  • Delivers water directly to the plant’s roots resulting in decreased evaporation and no run-off allowing uniform distribution of water.
  • SDI results in a significantly drier soil surface that decreases germination of weeds.

“I’m averaging 4 tons more an acre with drip than I am with flood irrigation and I’m using less than half the water to do it. I can irrigate the field in 24 hours, and there’s no runoff, no tail water. I just apply what I need.” – Larry Bettencourt, Alfalfa Grower, Kings County, CA

Decreased Input Costs

The efficiency of a Subsurface Drip Irrigation system can significantly reduce an alfalfa growers input costs by increasing fertilizer efficiency, reducing water use, reducing labor and reducing energy use.

  • Allows precise application of nutrients, resulting in an increased uniformity, application efficiency and higher yields.
  • Precise application of water directly to the root zone reduces run-off and evaporation, increases distribution uniformity and water use efficiency.
  • Automatic irrigation scheduling and delivery of fertilizer and crop protection chemicals reduces the overall need for manpower.
  • With virtually no run-off or evaporation and lower operation pressures required, power to operate pump motors is greatly reduced.

“The field irrigated by drip outperformed the field irrigated by flood in every way. The yields were quite a bit higher, and the water costs were quite a bit lower. Drip irrigation changes our bottom line – for the better.” – Jon Shields, Alfalfa Grower, Imperial Valley, CA

Increased Operational Efficiency

A Subsurface Drip Irrigation system can increase the efficiency of an alfalfa growers’ overall operation.

  • SDI is able to adapt to any field size, shape, and topography, irrigating 100% of the field.
  • Increases the grower’s ability to leverage and respond to changing field and weather conditions.
  • Increases access to fields due to drier soil surfaces and absence of above ground piping/structures
  • Allows for immediate delivery of fertilizer to the entire system, or to select blocks, without using heavy fields machinery.

“My experience demonstrates it is about 30 to 40 percent more efficient to place nitrogen and phosphates in the root zone via SDI than spraying on top of the ground and watering it in.” – David Wuertz, Sundance Farms, Coolidge, AZ.

Learn more about how Netafim SDI can help your farm become more profitable at the Netafim SDI Resource Center.


For over 50 years, Netafim has been the leader in drip irrigation. The best solution for every climate, drip irrigation outshines other irrigation methods through the advantages it delivers. Faster plant growth allows growers to earn more, sooner. Yields are increased while water costs are reduced. Netafim’s product line has expanded and evolved over time to offer the most comprehensive array of drip irrigation products available. We’ve provided increased yields for crops like tomatoes, cotton and row crops. Now, we’re leading the industry as the drip irrigation experts for alfalfa. Netafim offers complete turn-key installation that guarantees system compatibility and performance. Visit the Netafim Resource Center for more information on system layouts, components, installation, operation and maintenance as well as answers to frequently asked questions about SDI.

Experts and Resources

Why Drip Irrigation for Alfalfa?

(written by Todd Rinkenberger and Dennis Hannaford)

Alfalfa Production Manual


Western Farm Press - August 2013


Rodent Management Strategies


Netafim Partners With UC Davis To Showcase Subsurface Drip Irrigation (SDI) In Alfalfa


Drip Irrigated Alfalfa


Case Study: Subsurface Drip Irrigation on Alfalfa


Irrigation and Fertilization Recommendations for Alfalfa



Timely Rodent Control Protects Driplines in Alfalfa Fields


Alfalfa Tissue Sampling Targets Plant Needs


Staying Ahead of Soul Moisture Levels During Summer is Critical to Improved Yields


Designing Optimal Alfalfa Drip Systems Requires Key Considerations


Seasonal Maintenance Keeps Driplines Performing


Growers Choose Netafim

Read first hand testimonials from growers who are successfully using drip irrigation on their Alfalfa crop and achieving higher yields.

Alfalfa Production With Subsurface Drip Irrigation

Includes drip irrigation success stories from 4 alfalfa growers

Netafim Drip Irrigation Alfalfa Success Story - Seth Rossow


Netafim Drip Irrigation Alfalfa Success Story - Steve Maddox


Netafim Drip Irrigation Alfalfa Succes Story - Roger Cornwell


Netafim Drip Irrigation Alfalfa Success Story - Richie Gunter


Netafim Drip Irrigation Alfalfa Success Story - Russell Schafer


Netafim Drip Irrigation Alfalfa Success Story - Nico Slabber


Netafim Drip Irrigation Alfalfa Success Story - Randy McGee


Industry News

Drip Irrigation on Alfalfa AgNet West Radio Network Interviews with Netafim's Todd Rinkenberger