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Dennis Bower checks an alfalfa field
BLUE CLUE: Dennis Bower checks an alfalfa field. To get high-quality hay, he aims to cut alfalfa when the field starts to turn blue.

Alfalfa comes up aces

North Dakota cash grain grower has had success with alfalfa.

There are a lot of reasons why Dennis Bower has been growing alfalfa for the past 15 years.

And they all add up to more overall profit.

The Galesburg, N.D., farmer represents North Dakota and South Dakota on the Midwest Forage Association board directors. He says there’s been a good market for alfalfa in the Midwest. However, the market can be volatile. One thing he’s seeing in the market today is the trend toward use of silage and haylage by large livestock operations.

For that reason, growth of the dairy industry in the I-29 corridor, especially in South Dakota and northwest Iowa, isn’t translating directly into more demand for hay from smaller producers, he says.

Bower has marketed his high-quality hay mostly to smaller dairies in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, and lower-quality hay to beef producers in North Dakota and South Dakota. In years when there’s a lot of poor-quality hay available, the beef market can be pretty tough, he says.

But alfalfa has a mostly positive impact on the corn, wheat and soybeans he also grows. Alfalfa roots pull up nutrients from deep in the soil and make them available to crops in the following years. Alfalfa also improves the soil tilth, breaks up soil compaction and adds nitrogen to the soil. Bower usually keeps a field in alfalfa for four or five years. In dry periods, the crop following alfalfa may suffer if the alfalfa used up all the deep moisture.

Alfalfa has allowed him to make better use of his time and machinery in slower times in the summer and winter. The first cutting of alfalfa usually occurs after planting is done. Second and third cuttings come after spraying is over and before corn and soybean harvest begins. He sells a lot of his hay in late fall and winter.

Bower hauls some of the hay himself, but buyers pick up most it. Having to load trucks during the winter is a drawback, especially as you get older, says Bower, 63. He’d also like to do more traveling in the winter. He is a big North Dakota State University Bison football fan and follows the team closely.

One important key to making alfalfa profitable is being able to put up high-quality hay, Bower says. In wet years it can be a challenge. Bower needs four or five days without rain to put up dairy-quality hay. He’s been careful to limit his alfalfa to about 300 acres, which is about what he can cut, window, dry and bale in that period of time.

When possible, Bower cuts alfalfa just before the plants flower. That’s the peak quality period, he says.

Management makes a big difference between a profit and a loss with alfalfa, Bower says. With good management, alfalfa can be a good addition to a grain farm most years.

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