Alfalfa is a $1.2 to $1.4 billion industry in California, but it faces competition from other crops, declines in the application of integrated pest management practices, and a need for improved research to help drive innovation and profitability.
A significant boost to the industry appears to be in the offing: a new voluntary nationwide alfalfa check-off program that would provide funds to support public research into alfalfa and alfalfa forage systems.
Dan Putnam, University of California Cooperative Extension specialist and agronomist, discussed the check-off plan at this year’s 2016 Alfalfa and Forage Field Day at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center (KARE) at Parlier.
Putnam explained that the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance is administering the U.S. Alfalfa Research Initiative, a farmer-funded investment in alfalfa-related research. Implemented voluntarily by seed brands, $1 for each bag of alfalfa seed is assessed. All the checkoff funds go to research – no money goes to administration.
At least 25 brands were participating, as of May 2016. The brands facilitate the collection of the checkoff from farmers purchasing alfalfa seed.
One aim for the meeting was to prioritize how money raised by the checkoff should be spent. Dozens of people who filled a meeting room at the center were polled.
They identified priority issues that included irrigation technology, harvest scheduling, crop nutrition, stand establishment, variety testing, genetics and variety development, standardizing laboratory techniques for quality measurement, adoption of genetically-modified organisms, economics, soil health, water quality, and regulatory issues.
Also high on the priority list were salinity, weed, and insect and disease management.
At the workshop, participants learned about insect pests and other threats to the alfalfa industry, and about striking developments in the use of new drone technology to gather data on sorghum grown for forage.
The event included about a 20-minute drone flyover by Blue River Technology. The drone, said Jeffrey Dahlberg, the center’s director, was able to collect data in minutes that researchers would otherwise spend many hours collecting.
Dahlberg explained the drone collected information on plant height, leaf area indexes, and biomass estimations. The hope is that periodic flights of the drone will record data that can be used in concert with genomic data to possibly look at “what genes are turned on” in a drought, he said.
Drone pilot David Finke said the drone can process 30 gigabytes of data. The data was monitored by Charlie Ross, who sat inside a specially-equipped van from Blue River.
Dahlberg said the research underway at Kearney could have significant implications for world hunger.
“I was a Peace Corps volunteer in west Africa,” he said. “Most people eat cereal crops. A big problem is water and drought.”
He said there is the chance that drought genes in sorghum and other cereal crops could be modified, and he pointed out “the sorghum family is fairly drought tolerant to begin with.”
Dahlberg said the drone collects 70,000 data points on each two-row plot.
“It would take 10,000 people to collect that data as fast as this thing is doing,” he said.
The system provides Excel spread sheets on every plot within 24 hours of a flight.
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Prior to the flight, Dahlberg shared some news that rocked the meeting.
“Bayer just bought Monsanto for $66 billion,” he said. “DuPont and Dow are merging. Syngenta is being bought by a Chinese company. Instead of lots of seed companies, we will have only a few. That’s a pretty big deal for all you seed folks.”
The one-word response from Bob Hutmacher, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and director of the West Side Research and Extension Center, was “Wow.”
Hutmacher discussed irrigation and nitrogen management trials at the West Side center, at KARE, and the College of the Sequoias in Tulare County.
Other presenters included Kurt Hembree, UC weed management farm advisor at Fresno County, who discussed Sharpen and Shark herbicides and the products’ merits. Sharpen can be used as a dormant application, but should not be applied later than January, he warned.
Larry Godfrey, UCCE entomology specialist at UC Davis, talked of pests in alfalfa including the alfalfa weevil and aphids. He said pest management in alfalfa has increasingly depended on insecticides over the past 20 years.
“Alfalfa has gone from a system known for a strong IPM program to one that is now is associated with having a large ‘footprint,’” Godfrey said.
He cited reports of alfalfa weevil resistance to pyrethroid insecticides in the Scott Valley, and he said research on resistance monitoring is planned statewide in 2017.
Vonny Barlow, UC entomology, IPM, and crop production farm advisor at Riverside County, also cited a decline in the number of researchers working in alfalfa’s IPM arena. He urged people to take advantage of the information UC has online on IPM in alfalfa.
Barlow talked about two difficult to find alfalfa pests which hide underground - ground mealybug and clover root curculio. Other problem pests include the potato leafhopper in the spring and the three cornered alfalfa hopper.
Dahlberg said the sugarcane aphid has invaded California sorghum this year, and the Pixley area has been especially hard hit.
“It’s a nasty little bugger that produces honeydew,” he said. Since it can overwinter in johnsongrass, Dahlberg fears “it is here to stay.”
Pete Goodell, UCCE IPM advisor at KARE, discussed using IPM decision support tools, including apps for smartphones and sharing information on pest outbreaks through iPiPE, the Integrated Pest Information Platform for Extension and Education - http://ed.ipipe.org.
Khaled Bali, UCCE irrigation water management specialist at Kearney, said there is little or no leaching of salts with subsurface drip irrigation systems in alfalfa, and he emphasized a need to try to achieve distribution uniformity with flood systems.
Putnam talked about advantages of subsurface drip in alfalfa while pointing out it can be costly. He said it would be necessary to improve yields over surface irrigation to justify the cost.
Nicholas Clark, UC agronomic cropping systems and nutrient management farm advisor for Kings County, discussed managing dairy manure in the fertilization of forage corn. Pointing out the value of nutrients from manure, he discouraged use of the term “waste,” saying it can be a crop asset.