While California alfalfa acreage has declined in recent years largely tied to drought, the forage crop in Arizona is gaining in acreage, yield, and respect.
Barry Tickes pegs Arizona alfalfa acreage at 300,000 acres. Add another 35,000 acres in other hays to bring the state’s total forage production acreage to about 335,000 acres.
“Arizona is the most productive hay production state in the U.S. and one of the top areas in the world,” says Tickes, director of the University of Arizona’s (UA) La Paz County Cooperative Extension at Parker. La Paz County borders the Colorado River in west central Arizona.
Tickes was the lead off speaker at the La Paz County Alfalfa Meeting held in late April.
La Paz County growers currently farm about 65,000 acres of alfalfa, including a 40-mile long swath about five miles wide through the scenic Parker Valley on Mohave Road - also called Indian Route 1 - from Parker to Ehrenburg.
The flat low desert farming mecca also includes desert durum wheat, cotton, and dehydrator onions.
Arizona top yielder
Tickes says Arizona alfalfa yields average 8.4 tons per acre – the highest yield in the nation. This compares to 6.5 tons in 2014 in neighboring California. The National Agricultural Statistics Service pegs last year’s average price for Arizona alfalfa hay at $161 per ton, compared to $248 per ton in the Golden State (2014).
In its ‘hay day’ before the current four-year drought, Golden State alfalfa acreage was about 1.1 million acres. Today, the state’s acreage is about 835,000 acres.
Turning to water use in Arizona alfalfa, UA Extension Agronomist Mike Ottman said timely irrigation is critical to alfalfa quality and yields. Cutting off irrigation to the forage crop does not pencil out at current water costs and hay prices.
When a grower shuts off the water, it’s sometimes to prevent scalding plants, though Ottman says laser leveling has helped reduced scalding. Other reasons to cut off water include weed control, a water shortage, a water transfer to municipalities, and to reduce production costs.
Alfalfa is a drought tolerant plant so turning the water off is an option for growers, Ottman said, since the plant better tolerates water stress, it’s a perennial crop with multiple harvests per year, and alfalfa is not a high value crop.
El Niño dying
Paul Brown, UA agricultural biometeorologist, provided a weather update, including a review of the El Niño weather pattern which is now dying quickly and expected to end by summer.
Overall, El Niño brought more than expected rain and snowfall to much of California last winter and this spring, yet less than expected moisture to the Southern California desert, Arizona, and western New Mexico.
Brown said this was the strongest El Niño weather system since the late 1990s.
For California, Brown said there was significant moisture improvement from this El Niño, yet he noted, “California is not out of the woods yet.”
Colorado River update
Brown then turned to the ongoing western drought’s impact on the Colorado River and falling water levels at Lake Mead. Current projections point to the increased likelihood of a Stage One drought call on the river - sooner rather than later - which would reduce surface water deliveries, primarily in Arizona.
According to government estimates, there will be not be a Colorado River shortage call this year. Yet there is a 37 percent chance of a shortage call in 2017, a 59 percent chance in 2018, and the odds only increase the following years.
“The bottom line is there is a fairly good chance we’re heading into a shortage call unless one of two things happen – it gets wet in a hurry, or water leaders in the lower basin states (California, Arizona, and Nevada) come up with a plan to prevent this.”
Brown added, “There are major political discussions underway on proposed shortage alleviation policies that could delay or prevent a shortage declaration.”
Among the ways to achieve this could be further water reductions now and in the near future which could basically keep more water in Lake Mead, above the 1,075 foot depth that could trigger a shortage call.
Representatives from several commercial companies spoke to the alfalfa crowd, including Pat Fernandez of Netafim who discussed subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) in alfalfa.
On average, Fernandez says SDI increases alfalfa yields by 20 percent with some higher yields reported at 25 percent to 30 percent. Overall, yields can total 12 tons per acre with SDI.
Other advantages of SDI include rapid regrowth after cutting, improved alfalfa quality (supreme to premium), and fewer weeds.
He pegged today’s per acre costs for a SDI system at about $2,500.
Fernandez shared that SDI-irrigated alfalfa requires more management, including increased rodent control. He cited rodents as the No. 1 concern with SDI in alfalfa.
Uncontrolled rodents can damage the SDI system, including holes in the underground tubing, and reduce yields up to about 30 percent.
Fernandez said, “Bait and trap is the most effective (rodent control method) in Arizona whether in drip, flood, or sprinkler.” His advice to growers, “Start rodent control early.”
He said SDI can increase the number of “cuts” (cuttings) during the year, noting that a grower near Eloy reported 18-19 cuttings a year.
Low lignin varieties
Don Miller of Alforex Seeds, the forage division of Dow AgroSciences, discussed the company’s conventional alfalfa breeding work and their new low lignin varieties now on the market.
Lignin is a product in the plant which helps keep the plant erect but it has a drawback.
“Lignin in mature plant tissue interferes with animal digestion and negatively affects forage quality,” Miller said. “Low lignin alfalfa creates a more digestible alfalfa.”
He said lower lignin alfalfa fed to dairy cows can increase milk production by one gallon per cow per day, and produce more meat.
In the 1970s and 1980s, most industry alfalfa research focused on pests and diseases. In recent years, Miller said the emphasis has been on alfalfa quality, including reduced lignin.
In 2014, Alforex Seeds released the industry’s first low lignin variety, Hi-Gest Alfalfa. Miller says the variety reduces the plant lignin level by 7 percent to 10 percent, enough to increase forage quality without hindering the plant’s ability to remain upright.
Alforex’s low lignin varieties include Hi-Gest AFX 960 and AFX 1060 for Arizona and Southern California, and Hi-Gest 660 for Central California.
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