Alfalfa: it’s what cows use to make milk.
While it may not be quite that simple, alfalfa is a staple for dairy herds across America. But it’s not just cows that make good use of it: horses love it; goats devour it and overseas markets want it.
You can find alfalfa growing at both ends of California.
It grows below sea level in the southern California desert region next to winter vegetable crops growing just north of the Mexican border; it thrives in California’s vast Central Valley among hundreds of other crops; and, it does quite well in higher elevations of northern California where the air is generally cooler and the soil more volcanic in nature.
It’s at the northern end of California, in elevations between 2,000 and 5,000 feet, where alfalfa production is limited to three cuttings (sometimes four) that growers tend to produce the highest-quality alfalfa hay for forage.
Jeff Fowle of Etna, Calif. is one of those northern California growers.
Fowle grows alfalfa on 120 acres at about 2,800 feet elevation in the Scott Valley, a region of Siskiyou County southwest of Mount Shasta that is known for its high-quality hay.
University of California alfalfa expert Steve Orloff says growing conditions in the higher elevation of northern California makes for higher quality alfalfa.
“Alfalfa grown in the intermountain area is different because the varieties grown here are more dormant and recover slower after cutting,” Orloff says. “The main difference is due to the climate.”
Slower growth rate
Cooler nighttime temperatures slow the growth rate in alfalfa, according to Orloff, which also shortens the internode length (the length of the stem segment between leaves). Higher leaf content relative to stems means higher quality.
Another benefit of the cooler growing region is the impact higher temperatures have on alfalfa maturity: there is more fiber and lignin in alfalfa grown under high temperatures, according to Orloff.
According to Orloff, the ability to bale hay that remains green in color stems from conditions that cause less bleaching and allow the hay to retain its green color better after curing. These conditions tend to be more common in northern California’s Intermountain Region.
While the coloring does not impact the nutritional value of alfalfa, Orloff says, its appearance can be important for horse and export markets.
While much of Fowle’s hay in the past has been shipped to overseas markets, which tends to favor hay that is greener in appearance, this year his crop has been destined for the dairy sheds of California’s Central Valley.
Most years Fowle will average seven tons per acre over three cuttings. About every other year or every third year he will harvest a fourth cutting, which he calls “candy” because it’s short and primarily comprised of leaves. Whether he makes three or four cuttings, his annual overall yield generally does not change.
“We cut on the calendar here,” Fowle said.
To get a fourth cutting his third must be cut the first weekend of June; any later and there simply is not the growing season available to make a fourth crop for sale.
That works well for Fowle as he tends to use that hay as grazing ground for his 150 head of registered Angus and 60 head of registered Herford cattle. He also has horses that benefit from the high-quality hay.
Microclimates and soil
Fowle grows Mountaineer and Roundup Ultra 3 alfalfa. The Mountaineer tends to do best in his growing region while the Ultra 3 does better in some of his more rocky soil types.
The diversity of microclimates and soil types in the Intermountain Region make it important for alfalfa growers to understand these and how the different varieties of alfalfa grow in such conditions, Orloff says. There is definitely no one-size-fits-all approach to growing alfalfa in northern California.
“The intermountain region of northern California is extremely diverse with alfalfa production occurring in numerous distinct high-mountain valleys that differ in elevation, growing season, soil type and growing conditions,” says Orloff. “Even within an individual valley there are microclimates with different temperature and moisture conditions due to topography and proximity to mountains or rivers which can affect alfalfa growth.”
To illustrate this point, Fowle said his neighbor grows three different varieties of alfalfa while Fowle grows just two.
“We’ll be below zero here while they’re eight-to-10 degrees warmer at their place,” Fowle said.
Another consideration in varieties is water needs, Fowle says.
“The Ultra 3 will get four inches more water than the Mountaineer variety,” said Fowle.
Dormancy scores are important for growers to note in the Intermountain Region, according to Orloff.
“Even within a fall dormancy class there is a wide range of performance and that is why we recommend growers look at the results of alfalfa variety trials closest and most similar to their area to select the best adapted varieties,” says Orloff.
Armyworms can be an issue Fowle must manage in some years, though Orloff says these tend not to be as prevalent a summer pest as in other growing regions of the state.
“Weevils are a common alfalfa pest throughout California,” says Orloff. “However, the intermountain area usually does not have a problem with summer worms (armyworm and alfalfa caterpillar) and aphid populations are typically not as high either.”
Squirrels and other rodents can be a big issue for Fowle. Orloff says this is because of the reliance on sprinkler irrigation rather than flood systems. Wheel lines and center pivots are generally used to irrigate alfalfa in this region.
Fowle says he can manage rodents occasionally through flood.
Weed issues are different in the intermountain region as well, according to Orloff.
“All areas have weed problems but the weed species differ somewhat and the intermountain area usually has more of a problem with perennial weeds due to the longer alfalfa stand life (typically five-to-seven years or longer compared with three-to-four years in the Central Valley and low desert),” said Orloff.
Fowle is one of those growers who, through careful management of his fields, has managed stands in excess of 19 years.
Depending on the arrival of winter rains, Fowle will inner-seed orchard grass through no-till methods. If the rains come early and it looks to be a wet season, he will inner-seed in the fall. If it remains dry he will inner-seed in the spring.