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Alfalfa systems have changed over past century

Photos by Curt Arens Alfalfa field with farmer and combine
FAST CUTTING: In 1913, alfalfa farmers had numerous challenges in raising and harvesting alfalfa, compared to our modern equipment and technologies that not only help raise premium alfalfa, but also get it harvested in a hurry.
Then and Now: Looking back to December 1913, one Nebraska farmer wrote about planting alfalfa in rows.

Editor’s note: In our column, Then and Now, we look at farm technologies, strategies, equipment, livestock, crops and treatments from our back issues of Nebraska Farmer, and discuss how things have changed and how they have stayed the same.

Alfalfa is an important crop to Nebraska producers — not only those who grow the crop, but also the livestock producers who feed it.

The state ranks fifth nationally in alfalfa grown for hay. That’s why an article on Page 3 in the Dec. 17, 1913, issue of Nebraska Farmer caught our eye. The title of the full page story is, “Alfalfa in cultivated rows,” and it was written by a Cheyenne County producer who was experimenting at the time with methods of raising a decent alfalfa hay and seed crop with very little precipitation.

To date this period in time, on subsequent pages of the issue, there are ads for the Bell telephone, a Kalamazoo wood cook stove, and a Maxwell 25-4 Roadster car that retailed for $750.

Low precipitation

As noted in the alfalfa story, annual precipitation at that time in Cheyenne County was only 12 to 14 inches per year. Today, that average is a little higher, but the county is still considered semiarid.

Comparing broadcast-seeded alfalfa with alfalfa he planted in 20-inch or narrower rows, the author noted in the article that the rowed alfalfa actually yielded up to a half ton more hay. He planted the alfalfa with his corn planter and cultivated the rows with his corn cultivator.

Planting depth was an issue with this practice, and he struggled with getting the alfalfa seed too deep. But, as he noted, there were no other options at the time.

He was also raising a portion of his alfalfa for seed. The farmer writing the article goes into great detail about how the alfalfa was harvested for seed with a self-rake reaper or with a mower that had a buncher attachment. Reading this article, we are quick to understand that the implements were horse-drawn, and there was plenty of hand labor going along with the job.

1913 Nebraska Farmer article offers one Cheyenne County producer’s vision of raising alfalfa in rows

COUNTING ROWS: This 1913 Nebraska Farmer article offers one Cheyenne County producer’s vision of raising alfalfa in rows, and gives detailed explanations on seedbed preparation, planting and harvesting on his farm more than a century ago.

One thing is certain. Dryland alfalfa is still a struggle for many producers on the Great Plains during drought years. Nebraska Farmer asked Jerry Volesky, Nebraska Extension range and forage specialist at North Platte, about this article and some of the strategies used today to conserve moisture and get a decent alfalfa crop in drier areas.

Today, producers think differently on how to conserve moisture in all crops, including alfalfa. The words “plowing” and “double-disking” used in the old article are not normally employed on dryland farms, with the opposite practice of no-till or minimum tillage much more prevalent.

“Cultivation would increase the drying of the soil and lose moisture,” Volesky says. “Many people would think that trying to establish a dense stand where the alfalfa is thick would help suppress weeds.”

Volesky also wondered about the raking and stacking process under a rowed system.

Dryland conditions

“Precipitation, of course, makes all the difference in yield,” Volesky says. “A general rule is that if alfalfa is over 10 inches tall and flowering, go ahead and harvest under dryland conditions. If it is less than 10 inches tall and flowering, do not cut, but let regrowth come through existing growth.”

As for planting times under dry conditions, spring and late summer — from mid-August to early September — are recommended, but spring planting is usually better for dryland alfalfa because there is a greater chance of getting timely rains for germination and early growth.

“Seeding rates for alfalfa are variable, depending on who you ask,” Volesky says. “Twelve to 15 pounds per acre is common. For dryland, rates can be 10% to 20% less.” The 1913 article mentions the importance of seedbed preparation, and that hasn’t changed, Volesky says. “The field should be firm and clean.”

We couldn’t find anyone who had heard of planting alfalfa in rows in more recent times, so it may have just been an experiment by one farmer in that region more than 100 years ago. Certainly, systems, seed genetics, equipment and technologies in planting, growing and harvesting alfalfa have changed so much, this producer may not recognize them today.

Still, the basic goals are the same for alfalfa producers today as in 1913 — to raise as much alfalfa hay with as good of quality as possible, and to be profitable in the process.

TAGS: Technology
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