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Researchers study why U.S. alfalfa yields have stagnated


Ohio Correspondent

WOOSTER, Ohio — Looking into growing some acreage of alfalfa anytime soon? If so, think long and hard about it. Statistics and even some experts in the field might have you looking instead at planting corn, soybeans or even wheat. In reality, experts in forage production give many reasons for the stagnation in the production of alfalfa.

“Alfalfa 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 of the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance (NAFA). “While alfalfa is best known as a premium livestock feed, it has gained attention for its value in carbon sequestration. Alfalfa is key to sustainable agricultural systems and is an economic engine in rural communities – its value for soil conservation, nitrogen fixation, energy savings, crop rotation, and wildlife habitat is unsurpassed.

“However, alfalfa must offer a competitive value for farmers in order to provide these benefits and maintain or expand its acreage base. Being recognized in policy and public research funding decisions is critical in keeping pace with other cropping choices. Sadly, public research funds have been sparse, particularly when compared to funds available for program crops such as corn and soybean.”

Rory Lewandowski, OSU Extension Educator from Wayne County, specializes in pasture and grazing management as well as harvested and stored forages. Lewandowski says the fact that alfalfa is so labor-intensive is one reason growers opt for other crops.

“Alfalfa can be a high value crop, particularly used with dairies,” he said. “The dairy operators are the ones most using this crop. There might be a market for some mix with alfalfa for other livestock operations, but if you’re looking at a pure alfalfa stand it’s more likely marketed to the diary people who are seeking its quality.

“Then there’s the concern for the soil itself. Alfalfa does require a higher soil pH,” he said. “One wants the soil to be closer to that 6.8 to 7.0 range for alfalfa. It’s a heavy feeder of particularly potash. You have to keep on top of fertility. And alfalfa really doesn’t like to have wet feet, as we have issues with diseases. Alfalfa needs to be in a well-drained area.”

Crop management, Lewandowski said, is one thing that keeps growers away from the crop.

“With alfalfa, it’s a matter of cutting management,” he said. “To harvest alfalfa and do a good job you have a lot of expensive equipment, things like a harvester, baler and wrapper. On top of that, timing is really an issue. If you’re trying to make dry hay you need that three to four days of sunny, dry weather. So at this time of year that’s tough to come by.

“Alfalfa is all about management and timing and trying to make everything work together. It’s not that it’s a difficult crop to grow, it’s the management that surrounds this crop which makes it a difficult crop to work with.”

California leads in alfalfa production

Statistics from NASS/USDA for 2013 show that California leads the nation in alfalfa production with 6.1 million tons. Idaho is second at 4.2 tons while Montana ranks third with 3.9 million tons.

A view of those states in the Farm World readership area show that Iowa ranks ninth at 2.4 million tons, followed by Michigan (14th, 1.9 million), Illinois (18th, 1.2 million), Ohio (1.1 millions), Indiana (20th, 1.0 million), Kentucky (26th, 0.6 million) and Tennessee (33rd, 57,000 tons).

Alfalfa is predominantly grown in the northern and western U.S. It can be grown in the southeastern U.S. but leaf and root diseases, poor soils and a lack of well-adapted varieties are often limitations.

On-farm alfalfa hay yields as reported by the USDA have been flat for the past 20 to 30 years, whether considered nationally or in the major alfalfa growing states. This is of major concern to alfalfa and dairy producers who struggle with profitability, but also of concern to scientists and policy makers envisioning a heavily populated world demanding even greater food production.

Critical need to improve alfalfa yields

According to Nelson and her staff, there is a critical need to improve yields in alfalfa. Advisors at the NAFA say there are five factors affecting yield that present possibilities for improvement.

During a recent seminar at NAFA headquarters, officials there cited cutting schedules as one reason yields are not increasing, stating they continue to be more aggressive. NAFA officials point out that the quality of alfalfa hay has been improving since the 1970s, the reason being growers are harvesting alfalfa at earlier stages of maturity.

Second, NAFA officials say, is the breeding involved with alfalfa.

“New cultivars are about the same as older ones in terms of yield. Newer cultivars will outyield older ones in the presence of diseases and insects, but by very little,” Nelson said.

Third is the issue of fall dormancy. The yield-quality trade-off is also associated with fall dormancy. Less fall dormant varieties tend to produce higher yield but they also tend to be stemmier and have higher fiber content than more dormant varieties. Thus, a grower who weighs quality over quantity could grow a more dormant variety than optimal for the production region, thereby lowering yields but maximizing quality.

Field traffic is the fourth reason for alfalfa’s stagnation.

“Driving hay equipment across fields multiple times per harvest and during multiple harvests lper year damages an alfalfa stand,” Nelson said. “Based on some yield trial data we’ve seen from California and Wisconsin, and other states, yield losses of 20 percent could be ascribed to traffic damage, with some varieties losing more than 25 percent.”

Cited as the fifth reason for alfalfa’s yield stagnation is the problem of water management, be it insufficient or excess soil moisture.

“About 50 percent of the U.S. alfalfa crop is produced under irrigation,” Nelson said. “Drought is one factor, but even when irrigation water is available, poor water management can lower yields.”

And, did we forget about insect damage to alfalfa? Cows aren’t the only creatures that like to eat alfalfa. Count alfalfa weevils in that group, as well as potato leafhoppers.

In 2017, entomologists across the U.S. filed reports of severe alfalfa damage from weevils. They attributed the damage to early warm temperatures.

“Though potato leafhoppers are often cited as the most severe pest that threatens alfalfa, it’s only because of their frequency and duration that earns that moniker,” says University of Kentucky entomologist Lee Townsend. “But make no mistake, alfalfa weevils can issue significant damage in a year that favors their survival and development. As temperatures warm in the spring, the adult weevils become active and females begin to lay eggs. At about 300 growing degree days, eggs begin to hatch and the larvae begin feeding. The maximum feeding occurs at 600 to 600 growing degree days.”

Still, there’s so much to like about alfalfa with all its nutritional benefits. But hoping to sit among the “Big 5” anytime soon is a bit farfetched.

“In summary, we all want to see yield improvement to keep alfalfa an economically viable crop,” Nelson said. “There are several critical areas that might be important, including harvesting schedules and techniques, plant genetics, irrigation management and soil improvement. It’s important for alfalfa growers to communicate with researchers and industries when their needs are to set long-term yield goals for the industry.”