Five ways to improve Western alfalfa yield, profitability

Five ways to improve Western alfalfa yield, profitability

The five top ways to improve western-state alfalfa yield and profitability involve irrigation management, cutting schedules, fertilization, proper stand establishment, and herbicide timing, says UCCE alfalfa farm advisor Steve Orloff. The grower should determine precise crop water use, Orloff says. The easiest and fairly accurate way is with soil moisture sensors.    

Steve Orloff has the type of mindset which a successful baseball player needs to win the World Series - at bat in the ninth inning in game seven with the score tied and the bases loaded.

And the pitch – the swing – the crowd roars!

Orloff has never played professional baseball but has a mitt full of winning tools to help Western alfalfa growers score higher yields and production efficiency which can lead to higher profitability.

He is the University of California Cooperative Extension director and alfalfa farm advisor in Siskiyou County in Yreka in the Intermountain region.

Orloff pitched his five ways to improve alfalfa yield and profitability during a standing-room-only seminar held during World Ag Expo in February, sponsored by Western Farm Press’ sister publication Hay & Forage Grower magazine, and Mycogen Seeds.   

Orloff admitted there is no single silver bullet to successfully produce alfalfa. Yet there are key practices which can help increase alfalfa yield and productivity and help growers pocket more money.

The top issue that limits alfalfa yield more often and to a greater degree than anything, Orloff believes, is irrigation management.

“The grower should do their best to determine precise crop water use.”

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This is a difficult task since the human eye cannot actually see what is happening in the field water wise. Much of it happens under the soil surface which makes finding under- or over-irrigation a real challenge.

That said, the easiest and fairly accurate way to determine water content in the soil is with soil moisture sensors, Orloff says. Sensors allow the grower to access soil moisture deeper in the root zone. It usually does a better job than a soil probe.

Second, remember that during specific times of the growing season that alfalfa typically needs less or more water.

“Many growers think their stand needs one to three three irrigations per cutting. It is better to examine the actual water application rate and apply less water in the spring, the most during peak summer temperatures (around mid-July), and less water in the fall,” Orloff said.

In the Intermountain region, the alfalfa specialist says some growers under irrigate during the summer and over irrigate in the fall since the same number of irrigations is practiced between the cuttings.

Orloff shared these ideas to gain “more crop per drop.” Check the early season soil moisture content to determine when irrigation should begin. Start the spring season with a full-water profile. Many irrigation systems do not have the ability to “catch up.” This is important since yield and price are often the highest in the spring.

Second - Manage alfalfa harvests

The second most important tool to gain yield and profitability, Orloff says, is to manage alfalfa harvests for maximum returns. Growers should adjust cutting schedules for economic conditions given the year.

Orloff shared several PowerPoint graphs illustrating average annual alfalfa hay prices in the Central Valley. Prices were high in 2008, crashed in 2009, and have edged higher ever since.

In years of higher-priced alfalfa, there is typically a low price spread between supreme quality alfalfa hay and fair quality alfalfa hay. The spread is higher in lower-price years. The cutting schedule selected by the grower in a given year should be based on the price spread between different quality classes of hay.

“Growers in higher-priced years are generally better off going for tonnage than for quality to gain more profitability,” Orloff believes.

Orloff’s third idea to boost yield and profitability is to fertilize the crop according to soil and plant tissue tests. Then apply the fertilizer based on the test results.

"It is very cost effective to follow this approach.”

The end result is fertilization based on the actual needs of the field. It avoids under- or over- fertilization and prevents losses to the bottom line.

On this subject, Orloff often fields fertilization questions from growers. In a lower priced alfalfa year, the grower may say they cannot afford a soil or plant tissue analysis.

Orloff responds, “Can you afford not to do it?”

A common comment Orloff hears is that fertilizer prices are ‘too high’ in a given year so the grower forgoes all fertilization.

In reality, Orloff explains, “Fertilizer, depending on the nutrient level in the soil, almost always pays. When the field is deficient, it typically pays two to three times the cost of the fertilizer.”

He suggests that growers use the "prescription" approach with soil-plant tissue tests to determine fertility status; not the “cookbook” recipe approach. The recipe version is when growers apply 100-pounds of phosphorous per acre per year whether the field actually needs it or not. Eventually this can lead to under- or over-fertilization of the field over time and lost income.

“Fertilizer application rates are tailored to actual needs of the field. Avoid the cost of over fertilization or lost yields,” Orloff said.

Correct stand establishment pays dividends 

The fourth best way to increase higher yield and productivity deals with stand establishment. Proper stand establishment is crucial since the grower generally must deal with the stand for three to four years in the Central Valley and six to eight years in the Intermountain area.”

"Good stand establishment includes a firm seedbed - avoid a 'fluffy' one."

Orloff suggests stepping on the soil in the field. The heel print should be one-half inch deep - not more - not less.

Deeper planting depths quickly reduce the emergence rate. A 1-inch seed depth cuts the emergence rate to 48 percent. A 2- to 2.5- inch depth is almost a fatal blow to emergence – a mere 2-percent emergence.

“Over my career, I have seen more stand establishment failures tied to seeding depth than any other factor,” Orloff noted.

Some growers believe a properly-seeded field generates almost 100 percent alfalfa emergence. In reality emergence is about 60 percent, even under ideal conditions – a one-quarter- to one-half-inch planting depth.

An often asked seeding question – does drill seeding or broadcast seeding create the best stand? Trials conducted by Orloff in Tulelake tested both types of planters.

“I believe you can get an adequate stand with both methods, but I think you can establish a few more plants with broadcast seeding,” Orloff shared.

Another planting question often posed by growers - when is the best time to plant a stand – in the late winter-spring or the late summer-early fall?

Orloff believes late summer-fall is the prime time to plant alfalfa as maximum root and crown development occur in the fall amid the cooler temperatures.

Other advantages of late summer-early fall plantings can include 20-50 percent higher yields in the intermountain area, less weed pressure, and faster seed germination.

Herbicide timing is everything

Orloff’s fifth top yield-profitability practice is the timing of herbicide applications. While growers often have the best intent when applying herbicides, sometimes they underestimate the actual weed infestation and treat it too late.

This can reduce the long-term profitability of the stand, in part tied to reduced alfalfa plant vigor.

“Weed control is crucial to prevent weed seed production. If you don’t, you’ll be living with weeds for a long time,” Orloff said.

Many weeds can produce more than 200,000 seeds per plant. The goal should be a near zero weed tolerance in seedling stands.

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