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Organic alfalfa commands higher prices

Becky Gillette Published on 31 August 2015
cutting alfalfa

Why consider growing alfalfa organically? The answer is “green” – and we’re talking about more cash profits from growing a crop increasingly in demand from the surge of consumer interest in organic milk.

A Washington State University global study found organic agriculture is significantly more profitable for farmers than conventional agriculture. The study concluded there is room for growth in organic agriculture.

Demand for organic milk has been increasing yearly and now is estimated to represent about 4 percent of milk sales in the U.S. Organic milk production is dependent on organic alfalfa hay for high-quality feed for dairy cows.

One of the biggest production issues with producing alfalfa hay organically is weed control.

“Definitely, weeds are an issue,” says Rachael Long, University of California (UC) Cooperative Extension farm adviser and lead author of the report “Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Organic Alfalfa Hay” (bit.ly/1CQybeC). Although the study was done for California, much will apply to other areas of the country, as well.

The organic alfalfa growers Long knows have few weed problems.

“It depends on the grower and how well they prepare their stands,” Long says. “If you plant a little heavy, plant at the right time of year, do good land preparation and have a great seed bed, the stands I’ve seen are pretty good."

"I’ve seen conventional fields that are very weedy and organic fields that are clean, and vice versa. Whether organic or not, you don’t want a lot of weeds because it changes the quality of the forage and you can lose a lot of production.”

Pre-irrigation is highly recommended. Germinate the weeds and eliminate them mechanically before alfalfa is planted. Because organic growers have limited tools for weeds, they can’t be allowed to become a big issue. Long says weed problems are seen more with spring plantings in California, one reason why fall plantings are favored as there is less competition from weeds and higher spring yields.

Alfalfa uses more phosphorus than other major crops.

“It is hard for organic farmers to meet the phosphorus levels needed in the soil,” says Dan Putnam, extension forage specialist at UC – Davis. “If the land is just transitioning into organic, you could even consider applying non-organic fertilizers before it transitions. Organic sources of phosphorus tend to be expensive and difficult to find in some areas. If you are near manure sources, that is a big plus. But even if you get it cheap, it is expensive to apply in terms of the energy it takes to get enough phosphorus from organic sources over the field.”

Although there are approved organic pesticides, there can be issues with pest management.

“Some you might have to live with or try different strategies,” Putnam says. “What’s most important is to plant varieties that show high levels of pest and disease resistance in your area.”

Another caution is to avoid harvesting too early in spring. Putnam says that is a double-edged sword because if you have lots of weed intrusion, you may have to clip or allow sheep to graze weeds back to let alfalfa grow through.

But sheep can also damage seedling alfalfa stands, so they need to be carefully monitored to ensure no stand loss, especially if fields are wet. Once fields are established, they can be grazed during wintertime for weed control.

Production of organic alfalfa hay is similar to conventional hay yet uses a different set of tools to solve problems, says William Douglas, a grower from Oakdale, California, who wrote a paper for UC – Davis on organic alfalfa production.

“Organic producers have the same fertilization, disease and pest needs as conventional producers yet must deal with the issues differently, which often requires non-traditional thinking,” Douglas says.

The cost of producing organic alfalfa is considerably lower than the cost of conventional production because costly commercial fertilizers and chemicals are not used. Douglas says yield and quality can be affected by this but are offset by higher prices for the crop.

He warns that certification of organic alfalfa is a time-consuming process. “Records are required, rules are to be followed and integrity must be maintained,” he says. “Taking care of all these things is possible but requires a strong commitment from the producer. A person has to really want to make organic production work to be successful at it.”

In addition to pre-irrigation and careful attention to fertility, Douglas recommends rotating with other crops, such as sweet potatoes, to help prevent weeds. Another strategy is the timing of the first irrigation to establish a strong stand from the beginning, crowding out weeds early.

For weed control in an established stand, he recommends mowing borders, flaming, timely harvest and separation of less desirable hay from higher-quality areas. Dust control, beneficial insects, resistant plant varieties, organic pesticides and close monitoring are other pest-control tools.

“They also have the option to harvest early if there’s a pest infestation,” Douglas says. “Pest management programs that strive to reduce pesticides are also a helpful resource and widely available on the Internet.”

Organic fertilizers must be approved by certifying agents and may be quite costly. Douglas says most producers seem to rely on properly composted material that adds proper nutrients and humus to the soil.

Perry Van Tassell, who has an organic alfalfa and dairy operation near Paul, Idaho, saves transportation costs and is more sustainable by using the manure from his 600 milk cows to fertilize the alfalfa. This also prevents contaminated runoff if the manure is not disposed of properly.

“We bed with straw, which is mixed with the manure to turn it into compost and put it back out on the field,” Van Tassell says. “We have a pretty high ratio of straw versus manure, so we can make good compost. We also fertilize with fishmeal from processed fish out of Canada. We also put gypsum out on the pasture once in a while.”

Van Tassell, who sells his milk to Horizon Organic Dairy with outlets all over the U.S., doesn’t mind the rules that must be followed to be organic.

“Organic certification has a lot of teeth in it, which is good,” he says. “Every year you have to be certified, inspected and fill out an organic systems plan that you follow.”

Ironically, growing alfalfa organically requires more use of diesel because of the need for much more field work.

“You can’t just go through once and spray,” says Van Tassell, who was certified organic in 2006. “You have to cultivate, aerate the ground and constantly work to control weeds.” For alfalfa, harrowing would occur in the wintertime for weed control when the crop is dormant.

About 50 to 60 percent of his 2,200 acres is planted in alfalfa, which he harvests for four or five years before rotating with another crop.

Although he has a lot more neighbors farming conventionally than organically, Van Tassell says he learns a lot from networking with other organic growers in what he calls “the Internet of each other.”

“If I find something that works for me, I share it with my organic neighbors and friends,” he says. “But I have a lot more neighbors farming conventionally than organically.”

Van Tassell gets consistently better prices for his organic milk, signing long-term contracts to sell his product.  FG

Becky Gillette is a freelance writer based in Arkansas.

PHOTO: Cutting organic alfalfa. Photo courtesy of Rachael Long

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