By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Alfalfa is the third most valuable field crop produced in the United States, valued at $9.3 billion, that’s $1.2 billion more than wheat, according to 2017 figures recently released by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
Alfalfa is also important to soil conservation.
This forage crop needs to take its rightful position alongside corn, soybean, wheat, cotton, and rice, which are often referred to as the “Big 5,” said Beth Nelson, president, National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance (NAFA). Yet it has a significant lack of public recognition when it comes to public research funding and policy decisions.
“Alfalfa is one of the keys to sustainable agriculture systems because it has value for soil conservation, nitrogen fixation, energy savings, crop rotation benefits, and it provides habitat,” Nelson said. “For it to be able to provide those benefits, alfalfa must be able to offer competitive value for farmers to produce. Sadly, public research funds have been sparse, particularly when compared to funds available for program crops such as corn and soybeans.”
One way alfalfa aids in soil conservation is by improving soil carbon levels. In a corn/soybean rotation, soil carbon levels are much lower than they are in an alfalfa/corn rotation, said Dr. Michael Russelle retired from with USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and current adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. Perennials like alfalfa that are grown for two or more years, in an undisturbed situation provide an environment for the carbon to be stored in the soil clods or aggregates.
“The roots and the vegetation from the above ground plant that is all on the surface, a lot of that carbon is retained in the soil,” Russelle said. “A crop like alfalfa has deep roots, they’ll grow 4- to 6-feet deep every year, and they’ll continue to grow as long as the soil allows it. Those roots will decompose eventually and add carbon to the soil”.
Plus there are exudates, material that leaks from the roots and supports microbial biomass; that adds carbon to the soil, Russelle said. When farmers put a perennial crop like alfalfa into a corn/soybean rotation, it almost always improves or at least maintains the soil carbon levels more efficiently than a corn/soybean rotation.
A study in the northern plains showed that the organic matter content in the soil increased by 17 percent in about that many years after inter seeding alfalfa into a grass range, and animal productivity went up, Russelle said. That is because alfalfa is a long-lived plant with deep roots; it produces a lot of biomass, much of which stays in the soil, and it fixes nitrogen.
That nitrogen supports the biomass production of the alfalfa and of plants that grow with it or of succeeding crops like corn, Russelle said. All those things help maintain the soil organic matter.
“Soil organic matter is crucial for soil tilth, how workable it is, how easy it is for plants to grow in it, how easy it is for rain to infiltrate,” Russelle said. “With low organic matter in soils, you typically have much more runoff or leaching of nutrients. With high organic matter soils, you have more water holding capacity because organic matter itself can help retain water, so plants are less affected by drought.”
Butler County Ohio farmer Rob Jester raises 80 acres of an alfalfa/orchard grass mixed hay. Jester agrees with Russelle because he knows that the alfalfa supplies the orchard grass with the nitrogen it needs. He rotates the hay with beans and corn every five to seven years and then goes back to hay.
“I get good value for as small a scale as I am,” Jester said. “I use the first cutting of hay for my cows. I round bale it; everything else gets square-baled. I sell 90 percent of all my square bales to Lexington. Starting in about the first of November there is a straight truck that comes for a load every other week through the winter.
“I do the hay because I can somewhat control the pricing versus the commodity crops like corn and beans where you’re at the mercy of the market,” he said. “I don’t have output costs every year. For me and my operation, I profit a lot more off the hay.”
Jester is not alone in wanting alfalfa on his farm. In 2017, alfalfa farmers in 42 states produced dry hay valued at $7.9 billion. In 17 of those states, farmers also produced haylage, at a worth of $1.4 billion, bringing total crop value to $9.3 billion, according to NASS.
Last November, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded more than $2 million in Alfalfa and Forage Research Program (AFRP) funding to study an array of topics affecting the alfalfa industry.
“It’s a start, but not enough for alfalfa to be on par with the “Big 5” - not only in terms of public research funding but also policy issues, particularly as the new Farm Bill takes shape,” Nelson said.
One new program that is exciting for the industry is the first ever alfalfa check-off created by NAFA in January of 2017. Because farmers first grew alfalfa as feed for their own livestock, in the past there has not been a good place to do a checkoff collection point, Nelson said. That has changed.
“So it’s a dollar a bag on alfalfa seed when that hay farmer is buying their seed for their hay crop,” Nelson said. “The check-off is administered voluntarily; when a seed market brand has decided that they will facilitate that, then everybody who buys from that seed marketer pays into that checkoff program.”
Alfalfa needs to be a competitive crop choice for producers, Nelson said. NAFA is working to make legislators and U.S. agency officials more aware of the crop.
“Every year NAFA does a Washington D.C. fly-in,” Nelson said. “When we started doing these eight years ago there was a lot more recognition for the Alfalfa character from the Little Rascals movie than there was for the nation’s third most valuable field crop. We are starting to change that.”