Farm Progress

Jason Rovey makes many farm management decisions based on university research; less on popular conventional growing practices

August 13, 2017

6 Min Read
In Jason Rovey's alfalfa fields, more phosphorus applied upfront is not better. About 75 pounds to 200 pounds of P is the magic number and not applied all at once.

Jason Rovey, 41, of Buckeye, Ariz. is a grower and numbers man who makes many farm management decisions based on various sources of university research and less on popular conventional growing practices.

The third-generation grower is among a new generation of growers who seek more farming solutions and expertise online.

“I can’t live without my iPad,” Rovey said. “It’s access to a world of information no matter where I am.”

His favorite sources for agricultural information are on the University of Arizona (UA), University of California (UC), and Purdue University agriculture Extension websites.

Rovey and his wife Becky farm 600 acres about half an hour west of Phoenix, including 400 acres of conventionally-grown alfalfa with balance double cropped with Upland cotton (Deltapine 1549 B2XF) and Durum wheat (Tiburon variety). They have two children – five-year-old daughter Lily and son John Henry, age 4.

Rovey enjoys interpreting large amounts of information to find what’s applicable to his farm, Rovey Farming Company, which he took over in early 2014.

“I think about the bottom line before every decision to spend money,” he said. “Continuing farming practices just they’ve been commonplace for decades is not in my vocabulary. There are always opportunities for improvement.”

Rovey’s farm data interest is tied to his agricultural engineering degree from UA earned in 2000, plus the next 15 years as a field test engineer for the John Deere Product Engineering Center.

Dirty job

At John Deere, Rovey worked with prototype tractors at a remote test site. Half his time was spent ‘getting dirty’ with the other half writing technical reports for Deere management.   

“I took tractors apart while getting covered with oil and grease. I’d locate tractor problems, repair it, and put the tractors back together,” Rovey said. “It was mostly a really fun job.”

Nighttime reading

Instead of watching television at night, Rovey reads online material to improve his operation.

“I read, read, and read research.”

In his farm office, Rovey showed Western Farm Press his iPad’s home page. There were a few downloaded apps on the screen but mostly icons, links to university research which caught his attention.

Phosphorus in alfalfa

Rovey has developed a relationship with UA Extension to answer his question about the best application rate and timing of phosphorus (P) to grow a high quality and yielding Arizona alfalfa crop. P is the primary fertilizer nutrient required to grow alfalfa in the Grand Canyon State, according to the UA.

The grower said, “Excess applied P is a resource waste while not enough limits yield.”

In some areas growers apply large amounts of P once in the soil prior to planting, enough to fertilize the crop for multiple years. Rovey questioned this, and conducted a field trial where he applied different amounts of 11-52-0 in a field. Another trial was conducted the next year.

“Every input must have a favorable economic return,” he said.

In both trials, UA agronomist Mike Ottman and Extension agent Ayman Mostafa took soil samples to study phosphorus levels and measure use – how much was available to the plant and the amount tied up and unavailable. The UA wrote an article on the results published on the UA website.

On the Rovey farm, he says, “More phosphorus applied upfront is not better. In my alfalfa, a 75-200  pounds rate is the magic number and not applied all at once. We are still working on the rate and timing for the best economic return.”  

Maschio power harrow

Another example where Rovey used published research found online was to expand his interest in minimum tillage, and to shorten the timeframe to remove an old alfalfa stand and re-plant it back to alfalfa. It typically takes about a month due to multiple tilling passes.

He says growers are also concerned about allelopathy and autotoxicity but the answer is not clear for Arizona. 

In most cases, Rovey rotates from alfalfa to another field crop and back to alfalfa, but low crop prices can be a good reason for a grower to plant alfalfa back-to-back.

Rovey spent time researching ways to reduce the window to remove old growth, prepare the ground, and plant a new stand. He had experience with the power harrow while working for John Deere and saw the equipment used on European farms. Rovey purchased a power harrow (about $35,000) from the company Maschio based in Italy which dramatically speeds up the process.

So far, planting alfalfa behind alfalfa within two weeks is working. The next step will be attaching a Maschio combination drill to the power harrow. Rovey intends to till out the old crop down to 4-6 inches, chew up the material, create a good seed bed, and plant in a single pass.

Alfalfa back to forage or another forage crop in one pass without needing to re-laser level is Rovey’s ultimate goal.

“This method allows for one more cutting of the retired alfalfa stand and the benefit of using moisture in the soil for the new stand. It took less water to establish the new stand,” he said. “The power harrow works best in moisture which is a real benefit for growers concerned about dust near residential areas.”

Variety and cuttings

Rovey’s alfalfa fields are planted in October with the winter active and highly non-dormant variety WL Research 656HQ blended with locally-grown variety not stated (VNS) seed. The half and half mixture helps Rovey reduce seed costs and seems to work well. He says certified seed yields well but does not have the stand persistence as some locally-grown varieties.

He cuts alfalfa eight to nine times annually starting in mid-February with the last cut in December. Rovey wants to reduce the cuttings to eight to focus more on improved yield in the summer and fall when hay is put up for the retail market. Cutting too often in the second half of the season, he says, hurts yield and profitability.

Hay from the first three-to-four cuttings is sold to a local dairy. Cuttings five and six (mid-May to July) are the highest yielding but lowest quality with the large-stemmed and often dry hay sold for export or converted into alfalfa pellets at Lakin Milling in nearby Avondale for the retail horse market.

Cuttings seven, eight, and nine cut from late July through December are sold for horse hay destined for team ropers wintering in Arizona or shipped to Texas and Florida.

Water and pests

Water for Rovey’s crops is groundwater from the Roosevelt Irrigation District priced at $47.50 per acre foot.

On the pest front, Rovey’s three worst alfalfa pests include the Egyptian alfalfa weevil which defoliates the plant - treated with one or two sprays of Steward EC insecticide (DuPont). He says the product is “easy” on beneficial insects.

Other pest problems include granulate cutworms which can “mow the plant down” from July to September; treated with Intrepid (Dow) zero to two times per season. Also a real pest is the potato leafhopper, a sucking insect which injects toxins in the plant and can turn alfalfa yellow.

Rovey says, “The retail horse market doesn’t want yellow hay.”

Baythroid (Bayer) is applied for potato leafhopper control.

Family heritage

Rovey grew up on his family’s crop farm farmed for 43 years by his parents – George and Patty. The senior couple now spends summers in Oregon.

“I appreciate the opportunity from my parents to farm,” Rovey said. “Without this opportunity I couldn’t be farming today.”

The first Rovey family members emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in the late 1800s, first settling in Illinois, and later moving westward to Arizona for the drier climate.

Today, the large Rovey family clan is all based in Central Arizona where family members milk cows, plus grow field crops including cotton, alfalfa, corn, barley, wheat, and feed beets.

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