Forage 2021: It Depends… : The best way to the best alfalfa hay
When it comes to farming and ranching, “it depends…” is about the only answer that applies to every situation.
There are a lot of factors of hay production no one can control. Chief on the list is moisture, even for the irrigated folks. Follow that with weevils, aphids, gophers and winter kill, and it starts to seem a little high-maintenance. But when you’ve been in the business long enough, you learn to control what you can, and fix what you can’t control, and to adapt when necessary.
George Packard, the owner and manager of Packard Ranch Company near Arthur, Nebraska, grows mostly irrigated alfalfa-grass mix, added to a calf backgrounding, cow-calf and custom farming operation.
The ranch was established in 1906, and they started raising alfalfa in the irrigated Sandhills ground north of Lake McCoughnahy in the 1950s, and raised dryland alfalfa before that. Their market was primarily dairies and feedlots, but they’ve adjusted their hay production to make it less fussy. Now they feed their hay themselves, or sell round bales locally to other cow-calf producers, having switched most of their fields to alfalfa-grass mixes.
The addition of grass–usually elephant grass, orchardgrass and/or festulolium–has added some flexibility and resilience to their hay crop. “It’s a lot easier to put that hay up,” Packard said. “You can bale that hay in more of the daylight hours. There’s enough grass that it cushions the leaves. We can bale in the afternoon, or when the dew first comes on in the evening, rather than going out in the middle of the night. It cures out faster. We get more tons cut and baled. It’s a phenomenal feed, and the cows won’t waste any of it. You lose the market for feedlots and dairies, but for cow-calf or backgrounding, we see nothing wrong with the grass-alfalfa mixture.”
Packard said the grass-alfalfa mixture also provides more energy, which helps in colder weather.
A healthy hay crop starts with good seed, that’s suitable for the climate you’re planting it in, Packard says. He uses a grass-alfalfa mix from Tug-Of-War Seeds and he’s been happy with the hay test, and the tonnage from those fields. Last year some of their grass-alfalfa mix hay tested at 22 percent crude protein, with an RFV of 200. “We’re pretty sandy soil, not that high quality of ground. That’s phenomenal,” he said.
When it comes to issues, Packard says they have their share. “I don’t know that you can ever get away from pests or disease. We see winter kill pretty easy. We have a lot of insect pressure just like anyone else. You can’t get away from that. About all you can do is start over.”
As they encountered problems with their alfalfa that would have prompted them to replant, they’ve gradually moved away from straight alfalfa and the accompanying issues. They still see weevils, but it is less of a problem if the alfalfa is mixed with clover and grass. However, the alfalfa-grass mixture requires more fertilizer than straight alfalfa, which fixes nitrogen on its own. “You can’t expect a field to produce if you don’t feed it. It’s a little more input, but the results pay,” Packard said.
As dairies became more concentrated in certain geographic areas, the market for dairy-grade, straight alfalfa diminished, and the cost of freight makes the distant dairies out of reach, for the most part. The local feedlots have access to less expensive, high-energy distillers feed, so Packard says the local cow-calf producers have created the best market for their feed.
But the dairy market is still a guide. “We price our hay just under the dairy price. We go by the USDA dairy price in the Platte Valley. I don’t have any problems selling it at just below dairy-quality price,” Packard said.
A couple hundred miles north, near Newell, South Dakota, Tom Seaman has been putting up alfalfa for 50 years. He was involved with South Dakota State University test plots in the 1970s, so he’s spent his life finding the best way to put up the best hay.
He bought a place near Newell with irrigated alfalfa 23 years ago and got serious about alfalfa and selling hay about 12 years ago. They’ve shipped big square bales to 12 different states and China.
“I’m the first to admit Mother Nature will always play a part in alfalfa stand production, as well as longevity,” he says. “But there are things you can do to help your odds. The one I will stress is fertilization, though all are part of establishing and growing good, healthy long-lasting alfalfa stands.”
Success with alfalfa starts with soil preparation. “A thick stand will control weeds and grass. A firm seedbed is one of the keys,” he says. “I can remember before the roller-packers came along, my dad and anybody that grew alfalfa planted early in the spring to get a snow on the seed. The snow created the firm seedbed. A roller packer or some kind of packer wheels will help ensure a good take on your alfalfa. The old dawgs always told me the best time to plant and pack is after your ground surface looks like soup (fine, with no clumps at all). They also told me, and it holds true, a packer packs the seed better at higher speeds.”
Your choice of seed will also affect the success of the stand. “Always buy certified hybrid multi-leaf alfalfa varieties that have characteristics that match your soil type or pest problems. Buy coated seed, and under irrigation, seed heavy. I seed 18 to 20 pounds to the acre. Getting a heavy stand of alfalfa is the first thing in raising good alfalfa. The second one is to keep that stand healthy.”
To that end, Seaman recommends soil testing and fertilizing accordingly every year. “If you want healthy alfalfa, long and thriving stands and tons, then feed it.”
He also says he never cuts a fourth cutting. “You must let that alfalfa get some bloom sometime during that year’s cycle, and a field should always have some regrowth before going into dormancy.”
Seaman recommends being choosy about when to graze an alfalfa field, avoiding it when it’s wet, and not in the spring at the beginning of the growing season.
If pests like weevils do move in, Seaman recognizes the importance of taking care of the problem, if it gets bad enough, as weevils will negatively affect the protein. While weevils won’t kill an otherwise healthy alfalfa stand, the costs and benefits of treating them have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
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