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Feeding alfalfa pays dividends

Becky Cook for Progressive Forage Published on 30 August 2016
Alfalfa field

Alfalfa isn’t always an obvious choice for hay growers, particularly in areas where other forages like fescue grow cheaply and easily. In cases like that, the value of growing alfalfa isn’t always an obvious choice, but after investigation, it easily becomes an economic choice.

Fescue grows well and is an inexpensive, low-energy feed source in most of the U.S., but it can also be toxic in large quantities unless cattle are getting a balanced diet. That’s where alfalfa plays a significant role.

Eldon Cole is the regional livestock specialist with the University of Missouri, and he says the reason alfalfa is such an important feed is because of fescue.

“Fescue toxicity is a big problem over here (in Missouri),” Cole says. “But you can break up that toxicity by including alfalfa hay or a legume like red or white clover.”

He says that alfalfa makes an excellent feed choice because it is a drought-tolerant, weed-resistant crop and a good cash crop to raise. In his area, the number of dairies has dwindled in recent years, and many farmers have stopped producing as much alfalfa as they used to. However, he maintains that it still is an excellent cash crop as beef producers look for higher protein sources to balance out the amount of fescue they are feeding.

“When you look at tonnage per acre, it is making a comeback,” Cole says. “But now it is for feeding to beef cattle.”

Tim Schnakenberg is the agronomy specialist for the University of Missouri, and he spends a lot of time each day working with farmers to help them optimize their farm production operation.

“Alfalfa is a good solution for both forage quality and production,” he says. “It produces a lot of growth consistently, it lasts a long time, especially when you take good care of it, and it produces a good return on your investment.”

On the other hand, it also takes a lot of work on a yearly basis to harvest and also takes good pest and fertilizer management to keep fertility high.

“But in return, you end up with a high-end crop that pays high dividends in energy,” Schnakenberg says.

In his area in Missouri, farmers usually get four cuttings of hay, and while the hay used to go primarily to dairy operations, it now goes more toward beef, horse and even milking goat operations. While some farmers still put their hay up in 4x4 bales, many of them are moving toward keeping it as haylage or using tube liners to preserve the quality when putting it up.

cutting alfalfa

“Not everyone has that equipment, but it is a good solution when putting it up at 50 percent moisture, which is standard for silage,” he says. “Besides which, a farmer can be in and out of a field in 12 hours. In late April and early May, we have a lot of showers, and three days drying time to get that hay down to 18 percent moisture is often a luxury we don’t have.”

He teaches “hay school” several times a year with positive feedback from attendees. They cover everything from seeding rates to fertilizer and go over all aspects of hay production, including management practices associated with hay production – all geared for regular hay producers.

“Our goal isn’t to promote hay production but rather to evaluate what they are doing and making them more efficient – sometimes we just get set in our ways,” he says. “We have found that baling fescue just doesn’t pay, and adding alfalfa to the mix can often justify the cost of production.”

He says farmers need to learn to be flexible and change things up, especially if they aren’t getting the results they are hoping, planning and paying for.

“You gotta wonder how some folks stay in business,” he says. “You have to be flexible and change things sometimes.”

Jim Stine is a cattleman who grows alfalfa for his cash crop in Missouri, and he has found that the alfalfa he grows has been paying good dividends.

“I planted Roundup Ready alfalfa 14 years ago, and that field is still going strong,” he says. “I used to have to reseed every few years – 10 years used to be the longest the seed would grow before reseeding. This Roundup Ready seems to go 15 to 20 years if you take care of it. It’s expensive seed to begin with, but it has paid off in the long run.”

Stine says he feeds some of his alfalfa to his own stock, but he also uses it as a cash crop. He has been averaging 5.5 to 6 tons an acre, and he starts cutting it in April and every 30 days thereafter. He says he applies fertilizer after the first and third cuttings based on soil tests but has been impressed by how little it has needed through the years.

“I had to apply a little nitrogen when I first planted it – but really next to nothing since then,” he says. “I use a little potash and phosphorus and also add a little boron and lime every five years or so. It doesn’t take the same amount every time, and that is why we soil test.”

Most years he cuts the hay one day, lets it sit one day and then bales it the next.

“If it’s windy, sometimes we can bale it on the second day,” he says.

Stine says he used to milk cows but sold out 14 years ago. Now he feeds alfalfa to his first-calf beef heifers, and his older cows get some mixed in with their fescue. He says alfalfa is imperative as a blend in his feed, and it is showing great results.

“In a bad year on fescue alone, the cows would look like they were going to die but would still have a full belly,” he says. “Fescue is a low-energy feed, and it’ll grow anywhere.

It’s good in cool weather, but in the summertime the cows don’t like it and they’ll go through a fence to find something else. That’s why we feed alfalfa too. It provides extra protein and higher energy and balances out the fescue.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: A field of alfalfa. Photo by Mike Dixon.

PHOTO 2: Cutting alfalfa. Photo courtesy of Becky Cook.

Becky Cook is a freelance writer based in Idaho.