Cochise County alfalfa acreage has nearly doubled over the last seven years. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Phoenix Field Office, Cochise growers harvested 115,000 tons of alfalfa from 16,500 acres in 2009 (6.5 tons per acre). About 9,000 acres of hay were harvested in 2003.

About 10 miles south of Willcox, David and Cathy Collins farm 360 acres of alfalfa at 4,200 feet elevation along the Dos Cabezas mountain range. The Collins and Cathy’s father Earl Moser farm 600 acres of cotton and corn for grain further south in Elfrida. All crops are center pivot irrigated.

Collins largely credits his 9-ton-per-acre annual alfalfa hay yields on the region’s cooler temperatures and efficient water use.

“Every one of my cuttings has been heavier this year,” Collins smiled taking a swig of iced tea. He also credits the increase in part to tweaks in his fertilizer program and sulfuric acid use to lower the high pH level in the groundwater.

Collins grows a Pioneer 6-7 dormancy seed variety which develops the plant crown deeper in the soil to provide increased protection from frost. The average frost date in the valley is Oct. 20. Lower dormancy seed delays plant emergence in the spring and speeds up crop dormancy in the fall.

“The lower dormancy, slower-growing alfalfa is a good fit under these cooler growing conditions,” Collins said. “Slowing production down allows me to grow higher quality hay.”

Collins pays from $250-$350 annually/acre in water-related costs to deliver about 48 inches of water to the crop.

Collins maintains his alfalfa stands for about five years. He usually gets seven cuttings. Due to the 6 to 10 inches of rain during the summer monsoon season, Collins expects to harvest six and a half cuttings.

His first cutting is usually about May 1. The last cutting occurs in late October. He aims for 28 days between cuttings.

Collins and neighboring alfalfa grower John Hart share equipment which reduces operating costs.

“We use big balers which reduces the traffic in the field and extends the stand life due to fewer runs across the field,” Collins said.

Collins averages four to five dairy quality hay cuttings annually; the first two and last two cuttings. His most recent hay analysis included a 181 RFV. The crude protein content was 21.5 percent.

A hay broker markets Collins’ hay which is usually sold to dairies. Lower quality hay is sold to feedlots.

Soil types vary across Collins’ fields.

“I can have six or seven soil types in a single field,” the third-generation farmer said. “Center pivot irrigation provides more efficient irrigation across the different soils.”

cblake@farmpress.com