Panelists

Farmer panelists (from left) Kim Sommers, Richard Larsen and Tryg Koch agree that timely cutting is critical for having high quality alfalfa. (Journal photo by Bill Spiegel.)

Alfalfa production in the Northwest is pretty similar to the Midwest, except for a shorter growing season. It is a big challenge to pack as much quality alfalfa into a short season, and it starts with getting a good stand from the start. Farmers participating in a panel discussion at Alfalfa U in Twin Falls, Idaho, shared some secrets of their success.

Richard Larsen, who farms near Dubois, Idaho, plants 30 pounds of seed per acre into a smooth, firm seedbed. “We start with a good stand. Every year, I lose plants and therefore I don’t mind investing more money into seed.”

Tryg Koch, who has 2,000 acres of alfalfa near Kalispell, Montana, said a firm seedbed is a must. “When I step down, I want to barely leave a boot track. You don’t need to bounce a basketball, but you shouldn’t sink in more than a quarter-inch,” he said. Koch plants 16 pounds of alfalfa seed mixed with about 6 pounds of grass seed. “You have one shot at getting this right for the next seven years. You’re further ahead by putting a few extra dollars up front and getting an extra an extra year of production,” he said.

Dennis Strohm, who farms near Fairfield, Idaho, said he plans for 10 years of alfalfa production per field, cutting once or twice per year. Weed control is paramount.

A quality product

Kim Sommers has alfalfa and beef cows near Denio, Nevada. Most of the hay on his irrigated ranch is destined for dairies in California. Quality, then, is of utmost importance. He plans to start using steamers to maximize leaf retention due to the arid climate. Hay is packaged in 4-foot by 4-foot bales. Field fertility is carefully monitored. “We spoon-feed that hay during chemigation and apply foliar fertility a couple of times per crop,” he said. “We do soil sampling and apply accordingly. We try to attack quality from every angle we can.”

The panel agreed hay storage can make or break quality.

Koch used to just stack the hay, but now he sheds as much as he can on beds. “We lay 3-4 inches of sand down, and put 3-5 inches of grass hay, straw hay or old hay on top of the sand. We don’t have much loss anymore,” he explained.

In Sommers’ case, the best scenario is to not store it at all. “I make sure to get it sold. I don’t want to store it,” he said. “I developed relationships with dairymen in California’s Central Valley. Part of the process is to make sure hay doesn’t sit on our place very long. Let the customer store it.”

How to sell hay

There is no secret to selling hay. Koch and a neighboring farmer cooperate to set a price on small square bales, based on demand from the year before. Green hay, in good shape, is priced at about $185 per ton.

Strohm said most buyers prefer to get tests that include relative feed value protein and acid detergent fiber. “We have tried to use the Relative Feed Quality test, but RFV is the standard,” he said.

Larsen, who exports hay to several overseas destinations, says the standard is simple: Green is good, brown is bad. “I can offer 200 RFV hay in China, but if it’s not perfectly green, it is a problem,” he said. “It is the same thing with small square bales in Florida.”

Bill Spiegel can be reached at 785-587-7796 or bspiegel@hpj.com.

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