The second most important tool to gain yield and profitability, Orloff says, is to manage alfalfa harvests for maximum returns. Growers should adjust cutting schedules for economic conditions given the year.

Orloff shared several PowerPoint graphs illustrating average annual alfalfa hay prices in the Central Valley. Prices were high in 2008, crashed in 2009, and have edged higher ever since.

In years of higher-priced alfalfa, there is typically a low price spread between supreme quality alfalfa hay and fair quality alfalfa hay. The spread is higher in lower-price years. The cutting schedule selected by the grower in a given year should be based on the price spread between different quality classes of hay.

“Growers in higher-priced years are generally better off going for tonnage than for quality to gain more profitability,” Orloff believes.

Orloff’s third idea to boost yield and profitability is to fertilize the crop according to soil and plant tissue tests. Then apply the fertilizer based on the test results.

"It is very cost effective to follow this approach.”

The end result is fertilization based on the actual needs of the field. It avoids under- or over- fertilization and prevents losses to the bottom line.

On this subject, Orloff often fields fertilization questions from growers. In a lower priced alfalfa year, the grower may say they cannot afford a soil or plant tissue analysis.

Orloff responds, “Can you afford not to do it?”

A common comment Orloff hears is that fertilizer prices are ‘too high’ in a given year so the grower forgoes all fertilization.

In reality, Orloff explains, “Fertilizer, depending on the nutrient level in the soil, almost always pays. When the field is deficient, it typically pays two to three times the cost of the fertilizer.”

He suggests that growers use the "prescription" approach with soil-plant tissue tests to determine fertility status; not the “cookbook” recipe approach. The recipe version is when growers apply 100-pounds of phosphorous per acre per year whether the field actually needs it or not. Eventually this can lead to under- or over-fertilization of the field over time and lost income.

“Fertilizer application rates are tailored to actual needs of the field. Avoid the cost of over fertilization or lost yields,” Orloff said.