Farm Progress

Belt-tightening: Where to cut costs in low-price alfalfa years

"There is no sure-fire universal recommendation on how to cut costs without reducing the overall profitability of alfalfa production," says Steve Orloff

April 28, 2017

7 Min Read
Alfalfa growers attending the 3rd annual Arizona Alfalfa & Forage Symposium included, from left – David Hutchinson and Stetson Stevens, Stotz Dairy, Buckeye, Ariz.; plus Tony Lederer and Brett Rovey, Rovey Dairy, Glendale, Ariz.

Alfalfa growers continue to grapple with where to cut production costs to offset continued low hay prices. Financially, it’s a tough row to hoe.

“2016 was a year that many alfalfa producers would probably like to forget,” says Steve Orloff, director and farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) at Siskiyou County at Yreka in Northern California’s Intermountain Region.

“The last couple years have been dismal price wise for alfalfa producers.” And the first quarter of 2017 was more of the same.

Alfalfa prices have fallen, piggybacked by low milk prices. Most alfalfa hay is fed to livestock, mostly dairy cows, so dairymen operating near or below their production costs in recent years have reduced the amount of hay in rations. In turn, supply and demand has forced softer hay prices.

Growers have many belt-tightening options, as detailed in a survey conducted last year by Orloff and Dan Putnam, UCCE alfalfa and forage specialist. They quizzed alfalfa producers who attended past California and western alfalfa and forage symposiums via an electronic survey about the production changes they’ve made to trim costs.

The problem, Orloff concedes, is that in the long run some input reductions can cost more than the money saved.

“There is no ‘sure-fire’ universal recommendation on how to cut costs without reducing the overall profitability of alfalfa production. There are some areas where cutting back costs will reduce yield and reduce overall profitability. Growers should evaluate each input separately before proceeding.”

And the survey says

About 150 alfalfa and forage growers from California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington responded to the 12 question UCCE survey. Orloff shared the growers’ comments, and added his take on those, during the 2017 Arizona Alfalfa & Forage Symposium held in late March in Maricopa, co-sponsored by Western Farm Press.

The most common grower response to depressed prices (42 percent) was purchasing less equipment, for example tractors, balers, and swathers. This is a common first response when anyone looks to reduce their cost of living (a new car, furniture, etc.).

Orloff cautions that, when possible, alfalfa equipment should be purchased ‘as needed,’ especially during low crop price years.

“Equipment prices are often lower when crop prices are low,” he says. “If you have the cash flow and can afford it, buying equipment then can be a smart business decision if you plan to stay in the alfalfa business in the long run.”

Cut more frequently

The second most common survey response – 30 percent of the growers - was to cut alfalfa more frequently for quality. About 23 percent believed in shortening the cutting cycle while 12 percent opted to lengthen the number of days.

Orloff notes that lengthening the cutting interval may not be the best option in frugal price years.

“The price spread in California last year (a down price year) was more than $100 per ton between premium and fair quality hays,” he noted. “Sometimes, supreme quality was worth twice as much as fair quality hay.”

About 25 percent of the growers surveyed practiced a “shorter-and-longer” cutting philosophy which Orloff endorses, depending on the growing area.

“Growers in warmer climates can lengthen the interval between at least one of their summer cuttings while growers in colder areas with only three or four cuts per year should lengthen the interval for the summertime cutting. Give the plant a chance to replenish its roots reserves. Then cut at closer intervals during the spring and fall.”

Orloff adds, “It is very difficult to make test hay in the summer anyway so why not go for yield for a cutting and improve the vigor of the alfalfa stand.”

Stop or reduce fertilization

More than half of the surveyed growers chose to stop or reduce fertilizer use or scrutinize its use. Orloff says many growers apply the same amount of fertilizer every year since they assume it’s worked in the past – what Orloff called the “recipe” or “cookbook” approach.

The problem with this strategy, Orloff says, is it will eventually lead to under- or over-fertilization.

Instead, the farm advisor recommends taking a “critical value” approach in western-grown alfalfa where nutrients are only applied when an economic yield response is likely. Growers and consultants should use caution since the critical values recommended by different universities vary across the U.S. while the actual response does not. These values need to be re-evaluated.

Orloff noted, “The critical value for potassium in California is 80 parts per million (ppm), 200 ppm in Oregon, and 150 ppm in Arizona.

It’s rarely cost effective, he notes, to add nitrogen to alfalfa since as a legume the nodules on the plant roots supply enough to satisfy the crop’s needs. A nitrogen deficiency in alfalfa signals another problem like low pH or poor nodulation.

Orloff says growers should always keep a close tab on phosphorus levels in alfalfa; the most common nutrient deficiency in western alfalfa fields. There are not definitive plant symptoms so the grower should rely on plant tissue or soil analysis results.

Symptoms of potassium deficiency include spots on alfalfa leaf margins.

“If you don’t see leaf spots then the soil likely has sufficient potassium.”

Deficiencies in micronutrients are fairly rare in alfalfa, tied to the plant’s extensive root network that’s able to take up adequate micronutrients. Orloff notes that California’s Intermountain region has a few areas with sulfur, boron, and molybdenum deficiency but this is rare in most areas of the West.

If growers suspect a micronutrient deficiency conduct a plant tissue test first before spending money in micronutrient fertilizers.

Weed control

Orloff believes a low-price hay year is not the time to skimp on weed control costs. Based on several hay market reports which Orloff referenced, discounts for weed-infested hay can range from $10-$30 per ton or more if toxic weeds to cattle are present, or if weeds are sufficient to reduce alfalfa forage quality a grade or two.

Perhaps worse yet a buyer may turn down weedy hay all together and buy better quality hay elsewhere. Orloff’s bottom line message - don’t let weeds discount or ruin a hay sale.

To save money on herbicide use, he says be smart and search for ways to reduce product use and cost.

  • Know which weeds are in the field;

  • Apply herbicides earlier in the season, and apply soil residue products alone if the weed spectrum allows;

  • It may still be wise to tank mix with a contact herbicide yet at a lower rate;

  • Work with your pest control adviser and accept the risk for less than perfect control; and

  • In Roundup Ready alfalfa, glyphosate use alone may control weeds fine for a year or two but rotation is important to prevent herbicide resistance.

Wise insecticide use

Wise insecticide tips, the farm advisor says, include basing treatment on insect counts based on the presence of beneficials (IPM) versus the calendar. Even in low price years, an insecticide application is usually warranted if pests reach the economic threshold for the pest.

Since the 1970s, the threshold for alfalfa weevil has been 20 larvae per sweep, yet other factors including new varieties and management strategies, insecticide efficacy and cost, and differences in crop prices have changed. This is an example where the threshold should be revisited and updated.

Other areas

Irrigation is certainly a critical input cost. In the survey, few growers opted to reduce irrigation in low price years, recognizing its importance to profitability. In many geographical areas, Orloff believes cancelling irrigation after the last cut (where applicable) is okay as yield in most cases bounces back the following year.

The key, he says, is to start off the following season with a full soil profile. Fall irrigation may be necessary to accomplish this in some areas.

Another price-cutting option is to buy the cheapest alfalfa seed available, an idea which Orloff discounted.

“Do not buy the cheapest seed on the market,” he said. “Being penny wise is likely to be dollar foolish.”

Overall, a high level of management is important every year in alfalfa, but Orloff says especially in low price years.

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