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Focus on alfalfa: Producers explore production methods at Field Day

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Lingle – Producers gathered at the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) on June 27 for the Wyoming Forage Field Day to explore methods of alfalfa production. 

The Wyoming Business Council Agribusiness Division and University of Wyoming sponsored the field day.  

“It was beneficial experience for everyone. Producers learned not only from the researchers but also from others in the industry that shared their practical experience,” said Sarah Alfred, seasonal employee at SAREC. “A lot of work went into the event, and it was a great day full of wonderful, enthusiastic people.” 

The focus of the day was alfalfa, a nitrogen-fixing legume, used to increase nitrogen deposition in cropland soils. However, producers can benefit fiscally from cultivating this plant for forage as the price per ton increases. 

“The U.S. baled alfalfa price is up 62 percent from the 2006-10 average price,” said Brian Lee, research scientist at SAREC. 

In 2012, the price per ton exceeded $200.

Economics of forage fertility

Producers can anticipate an increased yield with the proper application of fertilizers. 

In order to make the application cost effective, producers should first test their soils to determine the composition to avoid adding unnecessary nutrients. The major nutrients removed by alfalfa during growth include nitrogen, which is required at 56 pounds per ton of forage, phosphorus, at 12 to 15 pounds, and potassium, at 55 to 70 pounds.  

“It is more cost effective for producers to incorporate this crop and management system into their operations now because the price of hay is higher compared to fertilizer expenses,” explained Lee.

Lee warned against just adding one of the nutrients to the soil to improve the yield.

“It needs to be balanced,” said Lee. “Without a balanced program, the yield won’t be as great because these nutrients all work together. Balanced fertilization increases the length and longevity of the alfalfa stands.”

Current breakeven analyses complied by Lee show that, over the course of the growing season, acres need to produce 0.74 extra tons to cover the cost of the added phosphorus at maximum levels and one extra ton to breakeven with the cost of potassium if the maximum was applied. 

This is considerably less than the breakeven for the 2006-10 time period. 

Planting preparations

“Always remember the seven P’s,” said Anowar Islam, assistant professor of plant sciences at UW. “Pre-prior planning prevents poor pasture performance. Mistakes made in the early planning and management phase cannot be corrected later.”

Islam cited establishment as the number one consideration with alfalfa production and management. 

“Forage seeding is costly. Therefore, failure to obtain a good stand can result in monetary and land use losses for the producer. The failure rate of forage establishment is higher than traditional crops, so the risk and cost of forage establishment is substantial,” said Islam. 

However, steps can be taken during the planning phases to reduce the risk of seedling failure.

“A number of activities need to be completed before planting, including site selection, weed management, adjusting soil pH, fertilization and species and variety selection,” added Islam. “It is imperative to match the forage variety to the characteristics of the soil.”

“Soil pH adjustment is important because alfalfa will grow best and yield more at near neutral soil that has a pH closer to seven,” he continued.

Establishing a stand

Islam recommended seeding at about 20 to 50 seeds per square foot, depending on size of the seed. After germination, the plants will typically self-thin to 25 plants or less. 

“Seeders can be calibrated so the proper amount of seeds are scattered, saving the producer money,” added Islam.

Adjusting planting depth will also increase the likelihood of stand success.

“Planting too deep is the most common reason for forage seeding failure,” he continued. “This is usually the result of a loose seedbed.”

A well-pressed seedbed should not allow an adult footprint to sink more than one-quarter of an inch deep. Another rule of thumb is that about 10 percent of the seeds should be visible on the surface after seeding.

Once the seedbed has been prepared, required moisture and planting time must be examined. 

Water and temperature

“Forage seeds require 100 percent of their own weight in water to initiate the germination process,” explained Islam. “The seed must be in close contact with the soil as much as possible and a firm seed bed will help facilitate this.”

The seeds should also be sown when temperatures reach 40 degrees or higher. Planting should occur early in that time period because high temperatures will dry out the soil surface.

Islam stated that the best time for alfalfa establishment in many Wyoming regions is May but other planting times are also sufficient.

“An alternative to May seeding is late summer, around August, if water is available,” elaborated Islam. “Early spring planting, in March or April, generally helps seedlings be better rooted before hot weather appears. However, slight frost injury due to hard frost may occur after germination. Overall, there is less risk in early spring seeding than seeding in May because of adequate rainfall and optimum temperature.”

Kelsey Tramp is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at 

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