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Willcox, Ariz., growers are in the spotlight due to high-quality alfalfa dairy hay production. Cooler temperatures and water management play a significant role.
Hay tests reveal quality
Hay tests tell the real story in hay quality. Owen’s hay crude protein level averages 22 percent to 25 percent. The relative feed value (RFV) is from 190-220; both numbers are higher than Arizona statewide averages.
Mike Ottman, University of Arizona Extension agronomist, says the overall Arizona crude protein level is about 20 percent, depending on a wide range of factors. The statewide RFV averages slightly over 150 for spring and early summer dairy quality hay.
Owen’s cutting schedule ranges from 24-28 days depending on the weather. Hot weather reduces the cutting cycle to 24 days while cooler temperatures lead to 28-day cuttings.
“The number of days is a good indicator of hay quality, but you have to go out in the field to check the hay,” Owen said. “As soon as we see buds, we get ready for cutting.”
Owen’s yields usually tally 8-10 tons per acre annually.
Water management is crucial to Owen’s alfalfa business. Most of Cochise County agriculture is groundwater fed and delivered to crops by center pivot irrigation. Water management is easier with pivots.
“Pivot irrigation allows me to precisely apply water as needed to improve the quality and yield of the crop,” Owen said.
In this large center pivot region, 160-acre fields are farmed in circles with 120 acres actually planted in the crop. A one-quarter-mile-long pivot rotates in the circle. Owen’s permanently-placed pivots complete the circle in four days delivering 1.5 to 2 inches of water to the crop. The pivot can move faster or slower depending on water needs.
In this area known as the Sulphur Springs Valley, groundwater supplies are sufficient in most areas but not all. Center pivot technology delivers an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent water efficiency which helps farmers stretch available water supplies.
There is no financial cost for the groundwater. Owen paid $300-$450 per acre last year for gas and electricity to pump and deliver water to the fields. His well pumps are powered by electric motors and natural gas.
Groundwater-based pivot alfalfa production decreases weeds in fields which means less herbicide use.
“With the pivot system, weed seed is not introduced into the stand as much compared to the open flood irrigated ditch system,” Owen said. “The pivot system is a closed irrigation so you can manage the weeds and water better.”
The pivots allow Owen to easily adjust water delivery.
“All you have to do is slow the pivot down or speed it up depending on the crop need,” Owen said. “If you are getting ready to cut the alfalfa but it’s a little stressed, you can speed up the pivot to give the plant one more drink and then get on the field without it being too wet.”
The pivot system also reduces labor costs. Owen’s pivot nozzles hang 3 feet from the ground. The spacing between the nozzles is 60 inches.
Owen receives good market prices for dairy quality hay.