U.S. alfalfa acreage has shrunk about as far as it can, according to Jeremy Hayward, brand manager for W-L Alfalfas.
Hayward told seed dealers from the West recently that the fundamentals are “bullish” on alfalfa, and he predicted another acreage increase this year following a 3 percent increase in seeding in 2012 over 2011.
That was good news for those who gathered in Sacramento for a W-L brand “re-launch” for a crop that has dwindled from more than 30 million acres in 1957 to only about 20 million acres of alfalfa now in the ground nationwide.
Alfalfa’s fate is tied closely to the dairy industry which has had rough sledding in recent years. Dairy cow inventory has declined, down 2 percent since 2008 to 9.1 million head. However, milk produced per cow is up significantly, to a little over 21,000 pounds, up 4 percent since 2008.
Overall, said Hayward, the number of dairy operations has plummeted 33 percent since 2001 to 65,000 separate dairies yet production is up 15 percent since then.
Higher commodity prices have dairymen looking for higher feed value for high-priced hay.
Growing international exports, primarily from the West Coast, also have put pressure on alfalfa prices, he added.
Dairymen often respond to high alfalfa prices by feeding less alfalfa per day per cow, substituting other feed stuffs for at least a portion of the alfalfa.
Nevertheless, Hayward is predicting strong demand for both conventional and Roundup Ready alfalfas due partly to winter kill in the Midwest. However, water will be the major factor on how much is planted in the West. W-L officials said growers are likely to wait later than normal this fall to plant alfalfa, waiting until the water availability picture is clearer.
The biggest news in alfalfa has been the release of Roundup Ready alfalfa, which has been on and off the market through a myriad of legal challenges over the past several years that ended up in the Supreme Court. Eventually, Roundup Ready alfalfa won.
As expected, adoption has been swift with sales of RR alfalfa, accounting for from 60 percent to 90 percent of the acreage planted, depending on the geographic region, since it was fully deregulated in 2011. W-L RR alfalfa varieties accounted for 50 percent of the company’s sales.
The protracted legal challenges from radical environmental groups not only frustrated growers who wanted to planted it, but also created problems for seed production. Companies like W-L were forced to contract for both conventional and biotech alfalfa varieties, not knowing what would happen in the courts. This created a seed surplus once the legal issues were resolved.
Joe Waldo manages seed production for W-L and said this surplus has been largely reduced, and he expects a minimal carryover of seed, especially RR varieties, from 2013 into 2014.
Demand for both conventional and RR alfalfas is strong now. Waldo predicted retail prices will go up, as seed producers are forced to compete with other crops and pay more for honey bees to pollinate the seed crop.
Waldo told the seed dealers that growers who produce Roundup Ready alfalfa, find it “hard to go back to conventional varieties.”
Some of the reasons for that, according to Monsanto’s Jeff Herrmann: RR alfalfa is higher quality than conventional alfalfa. It also yields more and stand life is longer.
However, like all herbicide resistance crops, there is the issue of weed resistance in alfalfa just like corn, cotton and soybeans.
Herrmann admonished growers to be diligent in identifying escapes after a herbicide application. Find out if escapes are an application issue or weed resistance to glyphosate. This is especially critical in the 60-day stand establishment period which is when most of the Roundup is applied for weed control.
“We must protect the trait,” he said.
“There are different levels of resistance,” he added. Use a full rate of 32 ounces per acre to avoid resistance and treat weeds when they are small, “especially in the West where you often have dry, dusty conditions at application time.” This inhibits herbicide effectiveness, he says.
Add ammonium sulfate (AMS) if the mixing water is hard. Use a liquid AMS form, even though it is more expensive. A quarter percent surfactant also will help when conditions are dry.
Herrmann said Monsanto is working on getting a herbicide named Warrant labeled for alfalfa. It is an Acetochlor-based pre-emergence and post emergent residual herbicide now used in cotton and soybeans. It has a 30-day control period.
It controls Palmer pigweed, waterhemp, lambsquarters, nightshade, foxtails, and other small-seeded grasses and broadleaf weeds.
Herrmann hopes Warrant is labeled for alfalfa by 2016.
Herrmann also said Monsanto’s BioDirect technology could play a role in the distant future. BioDirect technology uses molecules found in nature to develop topically applied crop protection, including weed control. This, says Herrmann, will come by the end of the decade.
Jeremy Hayward, brand manager for W-L Alfalfas, is predicting another increase in alfalfa seed sales this year.
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