Forage 2022: Growing Alfalfa Seed
Alfalfa is one of the major forage crops in the western U.S. Many farmers and ranchers buy seed from several companies that offer numerous varieties—old and new—that have been selected for production, hardiness and, in many cases, their ability to withstand grazing.
Hayes Goosey, assistant professor and extension forage specialist, Department of Animal and Range Science, Montana State University, says, “There’s a lot of value in having a local seed producer; ranchers have assurance that this seed will work in their climate and soil. Having seed growers in different areas around the state is a good thing.”
When selecting seed, one of the things to pay attention to is fall dormancy rating. “There are different growth zones. You should match this with your production. The lower the fall dormancy, the less regrowth you get, and the higher the fall dormancy the more regrowth. Typically Montana is in a 3 to 4 fall dormancy zone, so producers would be more interested in those cultivars,” he says.
Northern Montana, along the Highline near the Canadian border, is mostly zone 3. The rest of the state is 3 to 4, and southwestern Montana might get into a 5. “This just determines how quickly it goes dormant, protecting the plants from early spring frost by not greening up too soon, or from early fall frost when the plant has not yet built up sufficient root reserve,” he says.
Though the dormancy rating is a baseline for a species’ survival, beyond that, the growers’ preferences, goals and growing conditions will determine which species to plant.
Some ranchers select alfalfa types that have fewer issues with bloat. There are also Roundup-ready varieties, and some grazing-tolerant cultivars. Some producers grow only hay, but many have cattle and want to graze aftermath after the final hay harvest. “Those types of alfalfa have less problem with split crowns; the crown is below the soil surface a little more, so there’s less detrimental impact from hoof action,” Goosey says, and fewer issues with root rot and diseases that get in through a split crown.
Ernie Johnson has been raising alfalfa seed for 40 years in the Milk River area of Montana, between Chinook and Harlem, near Zurich. “My father was involved also, until he passed away 10 years ago. My wife and I continued, and this is what kept me in agriculture,” Johnson says.
“I studied accounting at a major university and came back to the farm to help my dad save the farm, but after we were nearly $350,000 into debt we wondered how that was going to work.”
The farm has always grown wheat and hay. Most ranchers in this area grow alfalfa. “The first year I started growing (alfalfa) seed, I marketed seed to my neighbor and it went from there. Originally, we grew seed for the big companies and then it became increasingly difficult to get contracts. Now we market the seed ourselves, growing certified public varieties rather than proprietary varieties from seed companies,” he says.
Johnson grows varieties that are well-adapted to his region. “It’s important to grow varieties that are winter hardy and can stand grazing pressure. The new varieties also have quick recovery. One fellow from Nashua, Montana purchased seed for one of those new varieties and his second cutting harvested three tons per acre and had fine stems–very palatable–and the cows loved it. This is a great product developed by Montana State University research–a public variety that anybody can plant, raise, certify and sell.”
Johnson is one of very few producers who markets his own seed. “Most seed growers think they need to market through a big company, but this can be a struggle. Marketing has always been the big issue for agriculture,” he says.
“The Montana seed growers have a checkoff; with every sale, a half penny from each dollar goes to a seed commission and we determine how the money is spent—for marketing, research, and promotion of alfalfa seed. I think $150,000 was invested in new varieties. Melton is the variety I’m pushing but there are also others like Shaw that came out of that research,” says Johnson.
The alfalfa seed-growing business is a dwindling industry. “We probably had 80 producers in Montana at one time and only about 20 now. The company contracts are still not forthcoming. We recently had a winter seed school in Las Vegas, Nevada that we attended via Zoom conference. It had speakers from all over; the keynote speaker was a political analyst from Washington D.C., which was quite interesting, and we generally have a Montana winter seed school in February,” he says.
“The drought this past year was hard on farmers and ranchers, with hay scarce and high-priced. All our hay has sold to the same guy the past three out of four years. He likes to bale his own hay so this year he swathed and baled my hay, hauled it out and gave me a good price. I’m happy, he’s happy, and alfalfa seed is a good business. We grow hay and alfalfa seed side by side, and use hay barley as our rotational crop. The new varieties of barley hay are wonderful and life is good.”
Gord Pearse, with Bruce Seed Farms, near Townsend, Montana, grows several seed crops, including alfalfa. “Alfalfa is a small part of what we do, and a specialty variety. We grow the type with yellow flowers, for super dry conditions,” he says.
This synthetic cultivar, created cooperatively in 2015 by several universities and research centers, is used as livestock forage, nesting habitat for game birds, and improving pastures in arid regions. It works better than traditional alfalfa for stockpiling forage and is more drought-tolerant and winter-hardy than purple-flower alfalfa.
“We’ve grown other varieties of alfalfa in the past but now just this one, and it’s about 5 percent of our entire rotation. We grow lots of other forage legumes and grass seed.”
To grow alfalfa, it’s crucial to have pollinators such as leafcutter bees. “Many seed growers develop their own leafcutter bee system, and try to keep good habitat for bees,” says Goosey. “Alfalfa is dependent on a bee for pollination, whereas grasses are all wind pollinated and don’t need insects to carry the pollen.”
To be successful growing alfalfa seed, a person needs to make sure there’s no pesticide use that would negatively impact leafcutter bees—either on their own place or drifting in from the neighbor’s farm.
Johnson has his own leafcutter bees. He has a system in which he replaces his bees every year, to make sure he has enough. “I nest the bees into what we call a solid block system, then move those solid blocks to Boise, Idaho. That area is where the alfalfa seed-growing business originated. It spread from the Boise valley into Wyoming and Montana,” he says.
“I was producing bees for two growers in Idaho, but now just one. He sends me his drilled boards, and we sanitize them and nest clean Canadian bees into them and send them back to Idaho. He determines how many live bees there are per hole, and how many live bees in a block, and pays me based on the number of live bees. I buy more Canadian bees each year. This maintains the vitality of our bee population,” he says.
With this system he doesn’t have to take the bee larvae out of the nesting material. “This is a time consuming and delicate process to make sure the bees are not smashed.”
For Pearse, alfalfa is grown in rotation with other crops, which works well, but bee management is the biggest struggle. “We incubate our bees in a reefer trailer and it’s probably not the ideal situation. We get the bees tested every year, but often have to buy some from other people. It’s hard to keep a good population. The other local grower gets an increase every year in his bees and we can’t. It may be partly due to what we are growing in our rotations because we have to use more insecticides than what is healthy for the bees,” Pearse says.
Part of the challenge is keeping the good insects and stopping the harmful ones. “The blanket-cover insecticides are completely devastating to our beneficial pollinators and the so-called gentler insecticides don’t work as well on the harmful insects.”
For anyone thinking about growing alfalfa seed, Johnson recommends attending one of Western Alfalfa Seed Growers Association seed schools, then finding someone in your area who is raising alfalfa. “If you do get a contract with a big company they will provide help with a field man. The Canadian folks who raise the bees can also help,” says Johnson.
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