An irrigated field study was conducted to determine the relative importance and inter-relationships of growth parameters of three dormant alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) cultivars grown in the highlands of Eastern Anatolia, Turkey, in 2000-2003. The fast-growing cultivar Savas had the greatest dry matter (DM) yield at the final sampling date with the greatest mean crop growth rate. In addition to a greater relative growth rate (RGR), this cultivar had more stem branching and greater leaf area in the canopy, which resulted in greater leaf area index (LAI) and greater leaf area duration. Despite the considerable increase in leaf area ratio (LAR: leaf area per unit shoot DM), the reduction in RGR of all cultivars over time was the result of a large decline in net assimilation rate (NAR) due to increasing specific leaf area (SLA). Intracultivar variation in the RGR of alfalfa is mainly determined by NAR and SLA, and both were significantly higher for Savas than the other two cultivars. The relative importance of NAR and SLA to RGR changed due to increasing self-shading as the LAI of the canopy increased, creating a trade-off between NAR and SLA.