Farm Progress

Ozark farmer grows alfalfa to meet the demands of animal agriculture.

May 24, 2017

3 Min Read
GROWING FOR THE MARKET: Hay grower Justin Williams is filling a demand from livestock and horse enthusiasts in southwest Missouri by growing alfalfa. The region is primarily known for its fescue hay and pastures.steverts/iStock/Thinkstock

In an area known for fescue hay fields, Justin Williams is growing alfalfa.

The young Ozark grower changed his operation to meet demand from area livestock and horse producers for the forage crop. Williams touts the strong nutritional value of alfalfa over fescue. Alfalfa also produces more tonnage per acre than fescue, yielding more than 4 tons of dry matter per acre in this region of the state. In contrast, fescue makes 1 to 2 tons.

Williams learned how to produce high-quality alfalfa with the help of University of Missouri Extension personnel and shared his strategies during a recent farm tour. Here are his eight tips for growing and selling alfalfa.

1. Seed coating. Coated alfalfa seeds cost more but survive better. MU Extension specialist Tim Schnakenberg says that 60% of alfalfa seedlings die the first year. Established stands have been known to produce up to 14 years when conditions are good and management is conducive to alfalfa. It is not out of the question to expect at least five good years, he adds.

2. Planting. Williams plants with a no-till drill in the fall, but says alfalfa offers flexible planting times. He plants 20 pounds of coated seeds in one direction. Schnakenberg advises growers not to mix alfalfa with fescue. "Fescue will crowd out alfalfa. Orchardgrass is less competitive and is a better choice for a grass-legume mix."

3. Irrigation. Williams uses pivot irrigation systems to build tonnage.

4. Spray. Williams keeps alfalfa fields clean by spraying glyphosate on his Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties. "Weather is key to when you spray," he says. Clean fields improve stands by reducing competition for growing space.

5. Pest management. Williams looks for birds in his fields. Their presence implies alfalfa weevils. Alfalfa also is susceptible to potato leafhopper in some years. Growers should scout often and take measures to reduce pest pressure.

6. Hay cutting. He cuts hay no shorter than 3 inches and lets it lie overnight. On the second day, Williams rakes the hay at daylight. When his tractor tires get wet during raking, it is too wet to rake. He does not use inverters to flip hay, because each pass causes hay stems to lose leaves and nutrition. He does not cut past frost when alfalfa becomes dormant.

7. Fertilize. Soil-test alfalfa fields often, and do not skip on yearly fertilization. "You have to be willing to pour the fertilizer on," Schnakenberg says. "It will make you your money back." He suggested a split application, with half applied before or after the first cutting and the second application following the third cutting. One pound of boron per acre per year is also important during the growing season. Stay away from applying high doses of potash at planting time, he says

8. Marketing. Know your market, Williams says. He has found that small square bales sell better to sheep, goat and horse owners. Feedlots favor big bales. Williams works with Extension specialists to improve the return on investment on hay he sells.

Growing alfalfa takes planning. "You have to prepare for alfalfa," Schnakenberg says. "You don't wake up one morning and decide you want to plant alfalfa."

He recommends producers review the forage page of MU Extension's Missouri Crop Resource Guide

Source: University of Missouri Extension

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