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Growing alfalfa in fescue country: Award-winning producer commits to quality

Progressive Forage Grower Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 08 January 2016

Growing alfalfa isn’t as easy as it looks, says Glenn Obermann of Monet, Missouri. “I don’t want anybody to go out and think they can just plant it and be successful.” He ought to know – he’s won the Missouri state hay competition three out of the last five years, and was runner-up the rest of the time.

Obermann bales small square bales for niche markets – horses (his primary market), milk goats and meat goats. The Missouri horse market includes racehorses, show horses, pleasure riding horses and rodeo or working horses. “It’s a picky market,” Obermann says. “You have to plant it right, fertilize it right, keep bugs and weeds out.”

In addition to those markets, Obermann says the beef cattle market is growing for high-quality alfalfa hay to be fed in place of expensive creep feed supplements. Seventy percent of his bales are sold by the pickup load off the farm, while a delivery trailer hauls 300 bales at a time for larger orders, mostly to Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. He manages some sales through his website and doesn’t have trouble finding customers, as he says, “Whenever you sell somebody good hay, it gets around and they come back. If you can win state competitions in Missouri, that tells people that you’ve got a good product.”

Producers in southwest Missouri are familiar with fescue production, which is easy to grow and easy to manage. But alfalfa’s popularity is growing in this part of the country; producers are finding it hard to turn away from the higher feed value of alfalfa. Obermann says while most of his alfalfa runs at about 18 to 20 percent protein content, he has some as high as 23 or 24 percent. “If you take care of it, nothing comes close to beating it,” Obermann says.

Taking care of it, however, can be a challenge for a lot of folks. “When folks work in town, you can’t take care of it right. It’s expensive to fertilize and maintain, and if you don’t manage it properly, then it’s poor quality,” Obermann says. Unlike fescue, alfalfa is very sensitive to harvest timing. Obermann gets five or six cuttings a year – every 28 days, “in a perfect world with perfect weather.” When weather doesn’t cooperate and lots of rain events occur, he wraps round bales and sells it as baleage. “You have to be flexible and ready to work with the weather,” Obermann says.

Missouri’s rolling ground makes favorable, well-drained conditions for alfalfa. Obermann plants new ground during the last two weeks in May or first two weeks in June, dependent upon favorable soil temperature. He uses no-till seeding and does not use irrigation. He uses soil testing and generally finds that an application of sulfur, magnesium and lime before the first cutting and after the third cutting works well.

“I’m not gonna sit here and lie to you,” Obermann says. “Not everything I make is great quality alfalfa. Small square bales of good quality alfalfa hay are hard to raise. It’s time sensitive for mowing, raking and baling.” Obermann sold his milk cows five years ago and says now he has time to “do the little things right.”

Doing things right, Obermann says, requires having your own sprayer, windrow inverter or tedder, mower and baler. Otherwise, you lose flexibility to work with the weather. Because of Missouri’s humidity, he finds bales stick to accumulators and don’t slide well. He uses a bale wagon behind the baler and stores the bales in a pole barn or hayloft.

He says, “To get alfalfa with 23 percent protein, you have to bale it at night with the dew on it or early in the morning; it has to be bone-dry the day before you bale. But you’ll lose the leaves if you bale it when it’s bone-dry, so if you wait for some dew, you can retain the leaves.” He also uses a cultured inoculant on the hay to maintain quality.

As Obermann said, alfalfa has to be managed well to make it profitable, and you have to be committed to quality. He lives what he teaches. He demonstrated that by his response to my phone call for an interview, when he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t get you called back. It took me until midnight Saturday night to get it all baled.”  FG