Attending the Arizona Alfalfa and Forage Crops Workshop were Gary Thompson left and David Hutchison of Stotz Dairy Farm at Buckeye

Attending the Arizona Alfalfa and Forage Crops Workshop were Gary Thompson, left, and David Hutchison of Stotz Dairy Farm at Buckeye.

Western alfalfa industry evolving as agriculture changes

More than 40 percent of U.S.-grown alfalfa hay is produced in less than a dozen western states, including Arizona and California. Subsurface drip irrigation in alfalfa offers superior distribution uniformity over both space and time, says the University of California's Dan Putnam. SDI eliminates the wet-dry mud-pie to cement-block cycles, and provides an ability to maintain turgor.  

More than 40 percent of the alfalfa hay in the U.S. is produced in less than a dozen western states, with Arizona and California playing a prominent role in cultivating the important cash and rotation crop.

Improved alfalfa production and ways to reduce production costs were discussed at the Arizona Alfalfa and Forage Crops Workshop at the University of Arizona (UA) Maricopa Agricultural Center.

Speakers shared how alfalfa acreage in Arizona and California continues to change, with about a 20 percent acreage increase in Arizona over the last five to six years, while California acreage continues to decrease.

Ayman Mostafa, UA Cooperative Extension agent, noted that Arizona’s alfalfa and forage acreage totaled less than 250,000 acres about five years ago, mainly in Maricopa, Pinal, La Paz, and Yuma counties. Today, acreage totals more than 300,000 acres, with the increase largely tied to the expansion of the state’s dairy industry.

University of Arizona Agronomist Mike Ottman said alfalfa is “a bread and butter crop” that has paid the bills for many Arizona growers.

Dan Putnam, University of California, Davis agronomist, explained that California alfalfa acreage has fallen during the last 5-6 years - from about 1.1 million acres statewide to about 825,000-850,000 acres today.

Key production areas include Kern, Imperial, San Joaquin, Fresno, Tulare, and Siskiyou counties. Alfalfa is a key crop in the low desert, the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, and the intermountain regions of California.

Putnam said, “There’s been a steady march of replacement of agronomic crops by specialty crops in California’s Central Valley. These include alfalfa, wheat, corn, and small grains replaced by permanent crops including almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, plus some vineyards.” 

Almonds now No. 1

As a result, almonds dethroned alfalfa several years ago as the No. 1 acreage crop in California.

Putnam discussed different irrigation systems for alfalfa – flood, sprinkler, and subsurface drip – and how each system has its advantages and disadvantages.

“I’d never say that one system fits all needs and is appropriate for every situation,” he said. “The more efficient systems are clearly SDI and sprinklers that offer more flexibility in water application and timing than a check flood system.” 

Yet there are some advantages of flood systems for the management of salts and low energy demand.

Alfalfa Updates

Putnam said, “SDI offers superior distribution uniformity over both space and time, eliminating the wet-dry mud-pie to cement-block cycles, and gives an ability to maintain turgor, the driving force for plant growth.”

One of the key advantages is to get water back on large fields very quickly, and to closely follow the crop water demand during the growing period, rather than flooding followed by drying.

SDI in alfalfa has a major drawback for growers in northern California - rodents who use the tubing for what Putnam called ‘recreational chewing.’

“As you get further north, rodents are an increasing problem. They are a problem in alfalfa fields, but particularly under sprinklers and SDI because you don’t have flooding events that inundate the burrows,” he said.

“This is another reason why we recommend keeping the ability to flood irrigate in subsurface drip fields. Occasional flood irrigation will help rodent control, salt management, filling the soil profile, and for wildlife habitat.” 

The main management factor for rodent management, Putnam says, is frequent scouting and monitoring, followed by some type of removal (baits, trapping).

“Growers should probably do a better job of rodent management in all alfalfa fields, but in SDI fields it’s absolutely essential.”

Putnam says surface irrigation (check flood and bedded alfalfa) is used on 80-85 percent of California alfalfa ground, compared to about 14 percent with sprinkler and 2-3 percent with SDI.

Environmental, regulatory concerns

The UA’s Ottman says alfalfa production has many variables, including a similar climate in Arizona and parts of California.

“I think where we differ is that California has more environmental concerns and regulations, and California’s water crisis is more acute at the present time. They also have more crops and a bigger crop mix. They deal with watering almonds and alfalfa, and when water is in short supply almonds will be watered and alfalfa will suffer, for example.”

When water is in short supply in Arizona, Ottman says the choice of which crop not to irrigate may not be as clear cut, depending on the crops grown. 

Alfalfa grown in Arizona and California is sold to the dairy and horse markets primarily, yet more of California’s hay is exported, he says.

Turning to the price of alfalfa, prices have been lower over the last several years but so have prices for many other crops.

Putnam said, “Over the long term, those growers who can hang in there with acreage with the ability to increase production will be able to enjoy higher-priced years as more precise irrigation methods enable us to produce more crop per unit of water.”

The alfalfa-forage workshop was sponsored by the UA and Netafim.

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