Growing quality: Alfalfa expert discusses production at forage seminarsWritten by Emilee Gibb
Casper – The Wyoming Hay and Forage Association hosted kickoff seminars in various locations across the state on Nov. 14-17.
In addition to a roundtable discussion on hay marketing and transportation and a presentation on the organization of the Association, the seminars also hosted CROPLAN – Winfield Alfalfa and Forage Specialist Jeff Jackson, who discussed optimizing alfalfa production.
While producers have differences in the environment they’re growing alfalfa in and their specific goals, Jackson noted that every producer ultimately wants to improve their production.
“What we want to do is make more tons, and on the other side, we want to improve to get higher quality,” said Jackson.
Having a firm seedbed is critical for a quality alfalfa stand, stressed Jackson.
“My rule of thumb is, if we sink in past the sole of our shoe before we go plant alfalfa, it’s too soft,” said Jackson.
Deciding when to plant is one of the most important decisions that producers will make, said Jackson.
“Do I put the seed in the ground today, or do I make sure it’s better before I do it?”
Jackson advised planting seeds one-quarter of an inch into the soil, ranging up to three-quarters of an inch in coarse soils and no-till fields to reach moisture for germination.
There is not a single way that is best for producers to prepare their fields and plant alfalfa, said Jackson, but they must ensure that general planting principles are met.
“There’s about 1,500 ways to plant alfalfa. We need to just be sure that we’re getting a firm seedbed, we’re not too deep or leaving the seed all on top and other factors like that,” continued Jackson.
“If we were to go into the fertilizer bin and scoop fertilizer out, it’s going to take 50 pounds of pot ash fertilizer, 15 pounds of phosphorus, five pounds of sulfur and 0.1 pounds of boron for every ton of dry matter that comes off of that ground,” commented Jackson.
He explained that this equates to 400 pounds of fertilizer, if a producer takes six tons off of a field.
As an alfalfa producer himself, Jackson noted that this is extremely costly, but producers do not want to diminish the growth of the next crop rotating in to the field.
“We need to do what we can. Long-term, that ground isn’t going to sustain itself forever,” said Jackson.
“Depending on what a producer is going to rotate to for the next crop following that alfalfa ground, they don’t want to have to play catch up many years later. We have to be able to put some fertilizer or nutrients back in.”
Soil pH is another factor that may be helpful for producers to consider, especially in situations where soil pH is 7.5 to eight.
“Alfalfa does pretty good in high pH, but if we get 7.5 to eight, our phosphates are going to start getting tied up. It ties up iron. We have less availability of some of these nutrients,” he continued.
Referencing an experience with a producer where added micronutrients increased production by over one ton per acre, Jackson advised supplementing plants with micronutrients to increase forage production in high pH soils.
“If we have a high pH soil, we need to pay attention to how to take care of some of those micronutrient needs that we’re talking about, such as zinc, boron and manganese,” said Jackson.
Whether moisture is due to precipitation or irrigation, Jackson noted that oftentimes producers have problems with bacterial and fungal infections in alfalfa.
“When we pull the canopy open in irrigation systems, we can have this situation where the leaves start to turn yellow underneath and get spring blackstem and bacterial leaf spot underneath there,” said Jackson.
He advised applying a fungicide to alfalfa plants during the optimal window of six to eight inches in height.
“We should plan to apply it when that alfalfa breaks dormancy in the spring and is about four to six inches tall because, by the time we get an application out there, it’s going to be six to eight inches tall,” continued Jackson.
Spraying a fungicide to lower the incidence of disease helps producers maintain the lower leaves on the plants, as well as improves regrowth quality and plant vigor.
“It’s big deal to maintain those lower leaves because those are the first things that fall off when we start moving it around,” said Jackson. “It improves quality and tonnage.”
He noted that producers do not have to apply a fungicide with every cutting to have the benefits.
“We can get by two cuttings with one application of fungicide. It’s only labeled for three applications a year anyway,” explained Jackson.