Alfalfa (Medicago sativa
) has strong stress resistance, high nutritional value, good palatability for cattle, high yield and a drought tolerance mechanism, but long-term planting leads to soil desiccation. This research was carried out to examine the soil water conditions of alfalfa pastures with different planted ages, and determine the optimum time for alfalfa rotation in a plateau area of a sub-alpine monsoon climate. Soil water depletion, soil compaction and vegetation characteristics of alfalfa pastures of different ages (i.e., two, four and seven years) were assayed and compared with those of a cornfield which served as the control crop. Three 20 × 20 m plots and five random quadrats per plot were established at each field. Soil water contents at 0–400 cm depth and plant biomass were compared among different vegetation types, soil transects and planting years. The results showed that at the 250–400 cm depth, the soil water storage of the four- and seven-year-old alfalfa pastures was much lower than in the two-year-old alfalfa pasture and in the cornfield. Moreover, the degree of soil water storage deficit of the four- and seven-year-old alfalfa pastures was much higher than in the other fields. Soil compaction of alfalfa pastures increased with increasing planting age and reached a peak value in the seven-year-old alfalfa pasture. The highest above-ground biomass was observed in the four-year-old alpine alfalfa pasture. Thus, the best cultivation period for alfalfa pastures was four years from the perspective of higher yield and lower soil water consumption in pastoral sub-alpine areas. This study provided a basis for sustainable alfalfa pasture cultivation, timely harvest, rotation and water management measures to be implemented in alpine grazing lands.
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