Jaws dropped when University of California forage farm advisor Steve Orloff unveiled the results of decade-long studies on the best alfalfa cutting schedules to increase profitability in the Golden State’s Central Valley and Intermountain Region.   

Orloff, UCCE farm advisor and director in Siskiyou County, asked for a show of hands at the beginning of his presentation at the California Alfalfa and Forage Symposium in December on which cutting schedules bring the highest gross economic returns in the two regions. The UCCE research findings raised growers’ eyebrows since the results were not expected.

“Harvest timing is the most powerful tool under the alfalfa grower’s control to impact yield and quality and ultimately increase profitability potential; more so than the plant variety, fertilization, and other management factors,” Orloff told the crowd of 400 growers and industry representatives.

Orloff shared the results of his years of alfalfa cutting schedule studies in Tulelake and Macdoel in Siskiyou County, plus those of Dan Putnam, UC Davis Extension forage specialist, in the Davis area in Yolo County.

A scouring dilemma faced by alfalfa growers resembles customers at the grocery checkout deciding on paper versus plastic for bagged groceries yet hay growers have much more at stake. Growers must choose to either grow high-quality alfalfa with less yield per acre for feed for milk cows, or grow alfalfa for higher yields with less quality for other livestock; all in the quest to generate the most dollars.

Orloff said, “It is a very perplexing decision based on the dynamic nature of the alfalfa market, especially with the volatility of the market over the last decade.”

While genetic solutions down the road may offer at least partial solutions to the yield-versus-quality issue, Orloff and Putnam’s research remove some smudges from the crystal ball. The forage specialists studied shorter and longer cutting schedules compared to conventional cutting schedules in their respective areas, the corresponding changes in hay quality, and annual price trends.

The duo weighed USDA market news results based on on-farm pricing for supreme, premium, good, and fair-quality alfalfa with a season-long approach to yields. Growers are generally paid more for higher quality hay.

On average, seven cuttings at 28-day intervals are common throughout most of the Central Valley. Putnam studied adding an eighth cutting on a 24- to 25-day cutting cycle and a less frequent six-cutting schedule every 32 to 33 days.

Putnam’s research generated the following yield and quality findings based on the digestibility of the hay, judged by the acid detergent fiber (ADF) percentage. The lower the ADF number (preferred) represents the improved digestibility of alfalfa hay by animals. As ADF increases, forage digestibility decreases.

In Putnam’s trials conducted over three years with 18 varieties, the eight-cutting cycle produced an average of about 9 tons/acre/annually with 82 percent of the hay in the premium and supreme categories (ADF less than 29 percent) with the rest in the good, fair, and low categories.

The seven-cut schedule produced nearly 10 tons/acre with 50 percent of the hay in the premium and supreme categories. The six-cut cycle yielded about 11.5 tons/acre with 39 percent premium and supreme hay.

Gross returns for the last decade in both regions were calculated by multiplying the yield associated with each cutting schedule by the corresponding price for each hay quality category.

Price data was derived from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Livestock and Grain Market News reports. Central Valley data was pooled from several reporting districts. Varying harvest costs for each cutting schedule were factored into the equation.

When alfalfa prices were factored into the equation, the effect of cutting schedules on gross economic returns was surprising. 

“The six-cut schedule averaged almost $150/acre more than the seven or eight cut schedules in the Central Valley every year from 2001-2010. This really surprised us,” Orloff said.

From an earlier show of hands, only two people in the audience of 400 predicted more gross dollars from the six-cut schedule.

However, some caution is required. Even though the six-cut schedule may appear more profitable, Orloff pointed out that this hay is often much more difficult to market especially in a low-price year.  The price would likely drop further if more growers used this strategy.  So, this approach may not be feasible for many growers. 

“In the seven versus eight-cut cutting cycles, the schedule which generated the most dollars depended on the year,” said Orloff. “Growers are certainly better off cutting for higher alfalfa yields (lower quality) in higher price years and cutting to achieve high quality hay with some sacrifice in yield in lower price years.”

In the Intermountain Region, three-to-four cuttings per season are common in the higher elevations due to cooler weather and the shorter growing season. Trials were conducted at the Intermountain Region Extension and Research Center (2001-2004) in Tulelake at 4,000 feet above sea level and at a grower cooperator’s farm at Macdoel (2002) in the Butte Valley at 4,200 feet elevation, both Siskiyou County locations.

The three and four cutting schedules were compared with two deviations of the three cut system: three cuts with about the same time intervals between the second and third cuttings; and the three-cut with a delayed second cutting (7 to 4 days) to maximize production at that time of year.

The Tulelake three-cut schedule yielded about 7.5 tons/acre consisting of 70 percent premium alfalfa and 30 percent good alfalfa. The three-cut with the delayed second cut yielded almost 8 tons with 24 percent supreme, 39 percent premium, and 37 percent good. The four-cut schedule produced near 7 tons/acre; all 100 percent supreme hay.

Surprisingly, the three cut–second delayed cut schedule in Tulelake generated the most gross income year after year. The standard three cut grossed the second most revenue in high priced years and the four cut schedule was superior in low-price years. Just like the Central Valley, a $200/acre spread existed between the three cut-second cut delayed schedule and the four-cut schedule.

The Macdoel yield-quality trial results included: three-cut (5.5 tons/acre) – 34 percent supreme and 66 percent good hay; three cut-delayed second cut with about 6-ton yields – 33 percent supreme, 27 percent premium, and 40 percent good; and the four cut cycle (about 5 tons) with 100 percent supreme alfalfa.

The Macdoel gross dollar results mirrored the Tulelake financial bottom line.

In summary, Orloff says each alfalfa trial provided crucial information. Determining the optimum cutting schedule is not a simple straightforward task. Key factors to consider include the total seasonal yield, forage quality, and the price spread between different hay quality categories. Other issues include hay marketability and the impact of cutting schedules on stand persistence.

“Longer cutting schedules provide alfalfa with more time to replenish carbohydrate root reserves and improve overall stand vigor and persistence,” Orloff noted.

The data demonstrates the importance of high yields for profitability. Longer cutting schedules are more profitable when a strong market exists for mature high-fiber hay. Orloff says high-fiber alfalfa is difficult to market for most growers especially in low price years. Growers often are forced to sacrifice profitability for high forage quality and use shorter cutting intervals to assure the acceptance of the hay in the market.

The most profitable cutting schedule strategy depends on market conditions. High-price years tend to suggest cutting more for yield over quality, Orloff says. Cutting for quality over yield may be a better choice in low price years. The grower’s cutting management schedule should be flexible enough to adjust to market conditions.

“The best overall approach is likely a mixed strategy; not purely cutting for yield or quality,” Orloff concluded.

cblake@farmpress.com