Pictured at the 2015 University of California Alfalfa and Forage Field Day in Parlier Calif are Daniele Zaccaria UC Davis Inge Bisconer Toro MicroIrrigation and Blake Sanden UC Kern County

Pictured at the 2015 University of California Alfalfa and Forage Field Day in Parlier, Calif. are: Daniele Zaccaria, UC, Davis; Inge Bisconer, Toro Micro-Irrigation; and Blake Sanden, UC Kern County.

Lower prices, chlorpyrifos scrutiny dominate talks with alfalfa growers

California alfalfa acreage is down and so are prices for lower or medium quality hay, says the University of California’s Dan Putnam. Lower quality hay is going for from $160 a ton to as little as $100 a ton. ​The state and federal governments are scrutinizing the pesticide chlorpyrifos.  

A leading authority on growing alfalfa in California sang much the same tune at this year’s alfalfa and forage field day in Parlier, Calif., but he tweaked the lyrics this time since in his words, “It’s a down year for alfalfa.”

Acreage is down and so are prices for lower or medium quality hay, said Dan Putnam, alfalfa and forage specialist with the University of California, Davis (UC Davis).

Putnam provided advice to growers on how to respond to those changes, emphasizing quality over quantity, a departure from the counsel he gave at last year’s field day at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier.

Last year’s event drew nearly 120 participants. This year’s turnout was well below that.

Putnam said the price for medium and lower quality has “fallen through the cracks.”

“Last year, I would have said, ‘You can almost forget about quality… you can sell medium and low quality hay for well over $200 a ton.’ This year, you can’t do that.”

Putnam says lower quality hay is going for from $160 a ton to as little as $100 a ton, “and further south it’s worse.” Some are finding it hard to find a buyer, he says, “and that makes the value of the hay zero.”

One strategy for getting higher quality, while sacrificing some yield, is to plant more dormant varieties rather than non-dormant varieties. Putnam says non-dormant varieties can yield 1.5 to 2 tons per acre more, but because dormant varieties grow slower, they lack longer, lignified stems that help account for lower quality for non-dormants.

A question was asked whether consolidation among private genetics suppliers could pose a problem by reducing the number of varieties available. Putnam said it could. He says he is particularly troubled that the lower number - three suppliers compared to what had been 10 a few years ago - could mean resistance to holding public trials.

“Companies sometimes want to do their own trials and not go head-to-head with competitors,” Putnam said.

Varietal performance key

As with past presentations, he emphasized the importance of choosing which seed to plant based on the performance of the variety rather than the seed cost. The return on investment for buying some higher cost seeds, particularly those with genetic resistance to certain pests and diseases, can be considerable.

The meeting concluded with a look at increased government scrutiny and regulation of chlorpyrifos against key pests in alfalfa and how that can remain in the toolbox for use in integrated pest management systems.

The state and federal governments are scrutinizing chlorpyrifos closely due to its potential health effects on humans and due to detection of high levels of the pesticide in some surface waters, notably in the Imperial Valley and Central Coast.

Current label requirements call for proper spray drift management and buffer zones with aquatic and other sensitive areas when applying the pesticide.

Chlorpyrifos is particularly prized for fighting certain alfalfa pests for which there are no or few registered alternatives in California. The pests include the cowpea aphid, weevil, and the blue alfalfa aphid.

When asked for his perspective on use of the pesticide in alfalfa, Tim Hays, pest control advisor for Buttonwillow Warehouse Co. in Bakersfield, had some cautionary observations.

“There are areas where newer non-chlorpyrifos products work better,” he said, “particularly on armyworms. They may be more expensive, but they are efficacious.”

Hays talked of studies in California’s Intermountain region where the pesticide was used to treat for blue aphid and did not work. Researchers were able to document that its use resulted, instead, in the loss of beneficial insects.

“If it doesn’t work,” Hays said, “you’re doing harm. It would have been better to have no treatment at all. I prefer following the agricultural Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.”

The field day also included discussion on a wide variety of sorghums used for forage and grain.

Deficit irrigation in sorghum

Bob Hutmacher, UC Cooperative Extension specialist with the Westside Research and Extension Center in Five Points, discussed irrigation trials where researchers in Parlier and Five Points looked at whether there are particular times when it might be best to use or avoid deficit irrigation in sorghum.

Hutmacher says there is some evidence where eliminating or reducing early season irrigations reduced yields more than eliminating late season irrigation.

Hutmacher and Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Ag Center, said significant pre-plant irrigations and-or rainfall are important in providing good stored soil moisture in the upper 4-5 feet of soil.

Participants also heard about the nitrogen benefits of alfalfa-wheat rotations from Eric Lin, a UC Davis graduate student with the Department of Plant Sciences.

Lin said the rotations bring increased soil organic matter, increased water use efficiency, increased nutrient use efficiency, reduced grain yield variability, reduced weeds, and reduced pests and diseases.

Alfalfa can help increase nitrogen in the soil which subsequent crops can use. At the same time, it can remove 250 pounds to 1,000 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year.

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Alfalfa weed control

Kurt Hembree, UC farm advisor in Fresno County, discussed alfalfa weed control and the value that Sharpen, not yet registered in the state, could have in control of tough weeds like sow thistle, prickly lettuce, horseweed, nettle, and others.

He said it can provide excellent control on those weeds, but the herbicide can harm alfalfa, although sensitivity to it appears to be affected by treatment timing and the use rate.

Hembree said delaying treatment with Sharpen until late January to early February may result in lower yields during the first cutting, at least in the lower San Joaquin Valley.

Evapotransiration

Daniele Zaccaria, agricultural water management specialist at UC Davis, said basing irrigation on the understanding of evapotranspiration - the total amount of water lost through evaporation in the soil and transpiration (“breathing”) of the plants - is valuable, but complicated due to cuttings and re-growth periods.

He says it is important to know the soil texture and soil water holding capacity and to create a deep soil water reserve to avoid a water deficit around harvest.

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