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Alfalfa economics

Wayne Schoper Published on 12 November 2012

Good-quality alfalfa is the cornerstone of any dairy farm forage ration. However, alfalfa is not just for dairy or beef producers any more.

Many farms can make similar profits to what they would raising corn and soybeans by growing alfalfa on at least a portion of their acres.

In fact, long-term averages show that alfalfa actually outperforms corn and soybeans.

Alfalfa would fit well into any farm operation as part of a mix of different crops, but so much relies on overall management. First, let’s look at the analysis of actual farm data to compare corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

Three-year average – 2009-2011
Corn: Average profit/acre – $192
Soybeans: Average profit/acre – $123
Alfalfa: Average profit/acre – $220

10-year average – 2001-2011
Corn: Average profit/acre – $75
Soybeans: Average profit/acre – $70
Alfalfa: Average profit/acre – $168

This is not to suggest that every farm should immediately convert a significant acreage to alfalfa, but it could prove to be an important third crop in the rotation with corn and soybeans on some farms.

Consider these factors:

1. High yield potential: Forage yield drives the economics of alfalfa production. While it may appear that two varieties perform similarly, only a 1/10-ton lower yield per cutting can result in substantially lower profitability over the life of a stand.

This includes cutting management and may be heavily dependent on weather as all crops are.

2. Disease resistance: Multiple disease resistance is an important risk management strategy. Many diseases do not affect the health of the alfalfa plant each year, but having disease resistance can prevent catastrophe and will likely show in large yield differences at least once in the life of the stand.

3. Stand persistence/winter survival: Healthy alfalfa plants that persist throughout the productive life of the crop results in higher profitability. Stand persistence is often influenced by plant health, insect management, soil fertility and climatic conditions.

How about “cheap” alfalfa seed? You get what you pay for. We know that many alfalfa trials have used Vernal alfalfa as a standard check variety for many years.

Vernal has not performed as well nearly as well as modern varieties, especially in recent years. This variety may keep up for a cutting or two when growing conditions at optimum – but when stress occurs, performance lags.

In medium-yield to high-yield environments, Vernal comes in at 75 to 80 percent of top varieties. The cost of good seed quickly becomes a minor issue when looking at production over the life of the stand.

Some “cheap” alfalfa seed is really a blend of varieties. Often in years of surplus seed production, several alfalfa varieties are blended together and sold as an unnamed seed blend.

The blended seed varies by dealer and company. The problem is that you never know what genetics have been included and at what ratios. Thus, there is a chance of having poor varieties in a blend.

How about applying manure to alfalfa? Manure has traditionally been targeted for use on corn acres because corn uses and needs all of the nutrients supplied by manure, especially nitrogen.

In recent years, there has been a trend towards using manure on alfalfa acres during the years of alfalfa production.

We know that alfalfa can use all of the nutrients and alfalfa also has the convenience of being available during the growing season.

Manure can be applied to established alfalfa if we follow a few guidelines. First of all, manure applications need to be made immediately after alfalfa harvest to reduce the risk of plant damage from both salt burn and wheel track damage.

Don’t apply more than 3,000 to 5,000 gallons per acre of liquid manure or about 10 tons of solid dairy manure to avoid damage to the established stand.  FG

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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