Cash-strapped Western alfalfa hay growers should carefully weigh production inputs before making decisions to reduce costs to increase profits in the 2010 growing season.

“Reducing inputs can result in lower alfalfa hay yields and poorer quality,” said Steve Orloff, farm advisor and director, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), Siskiyou County, Calif.

“Growers should carefully scrutinize all inputs in alfalfa production to determine which ones can be safely reduced and which ones cannot.”

A freefall in hay prices in late 2008 to 2009 tied to reduced dairy feed requirements have shoved many alfalfa growers into a financial corner. Growers are looking for ways to slice production costs to remain financially viable.

Alfalfa hay prices dropped about $100 a ton from mid-season 2008 to the 2009 season, while input costs have remained high. Orloff delved into the pros-and-cons of input reduction during a presentation at the 2009 Western Alfalfa and Forage Conference in Reno, Nev., in December.

Orloff says the key is to not scrimp too much on inputs which could impact the long-term productivity of the alfalfa stand.

Stand establishment remains one of the most critical aspects of alfalfa production.

“The goal is to achieve a vigorous alfalfa stand that will last a minimum of three or four years; in the intermountain area we prefer five to eight years,” Orloff told the crowd of 670 alfalfa and forage growers and industry representatives. “Don’t scrimp on inputs that will detract from achieving this goal.”

Deep ripping is a costly component of stand establishment. A good method to assess actual ripping requirements, Orloff says, is to dig a backhoe pit before removing an old alfalfa stand. Carefully examine the soil profile, root system, and any impediments to root growth.

Deep tillage is likely not required if the roots are unimpeded 3 feet to 4 feet down. Moderate tillage that breaks up subsurface impediments 12 to 14 inches deep is likely adequate to break up compacted layers caused by equipment.

No-till alfalfa seeding directly into the previous crop residue is a potential cost saver in many regions of the U.S. and the world, but not popular in the Western U.S.

“Alfalfa seed is very small which makes the no-till seeding depth critical,” Orloff said. “Emergence falls off if the seed is placed too deep or too shallow.”

No-till alfalfa seeding works best following a small grain crop and in loose sandy soils. No-till seeding is more difficult in heavier soils.

For seeding rates, California Central Valley alfalfa hay growers utilize a 10-40 pound/acre rate. Orloff says the standard recommendation for California is 15-20 pounds of seed/acre for drill seeding and 20-25 pounds/acre for broadcast seeding. Studies suggest 10 pounds of pure live seed per acre is adequate with a good seedbed and seeding equipment.

Another potential cost consideration is using raw seed versus coated seed. In addition to inert materials, coated seed can contain fungicides, Rhizobia bacteria, or fertilizer. About one-third of the seed weight is from the coating; this means fewer seed per pound.

Research trials have not proven coated seed to be consistently better than raw seed. Orloff says lower-priced raw seed is an option if diseases are not common in the area and a grower is willing to accept some risks.

Seed variety costs can vary up to $30 per acre between ‘variety not stated’ (VNS) seed to a top-yielding new variety with improved germplasm. Orloff says scrimping on variety costs is generally not a good idea.

“This is an example where being ‘penny wise’ is likely to be ‘pound foolish’ in most cases,” Orloff said. “Improved varieties are worth hundreds of dollars more per acre in potential yield compared with older, unimproved seed, or seeds with a questionable origin.”

It takes less than one-tenth of a ton yield increase annually to pay for a $2/pound higher seed price, Orloff says. An improved variety can boost yields up to $900/acre over three years in the Central Valley.

Hay growers are often tempted to reduce weed control during the stand’s lifetime. Orloff says reducing herbicide use during the critical seedling stage is a bad idea.

“Weeds always compete with alfalfa for light, nutrients, and space, but this competition is especially intense in seedling alfalfa,” Orloff said. “Weeds reduce the quality of the first harvest. A dense weed infestation can thin alfalfa stand density and reduce the stand’s long-term productivity.”

Identification is the key to effective weed control in seedling alfalfa. Nearly perfect weed control at a lower cost can be achieved by selecting the best herbicide for a particular weed. Herbicide tank mixes may be appropriate since no single herbicide controls all weed species. Treating weeds early at the middle label rate is cheaper than applying a high rate for larger weeds.

Eliminating fertilizers is often considered when hay prices fall. This is a poor choice, Orloff says, if growers have previously reduced fertilization in the field. Growers who have fertilized most years and maintained adequate fertility levels may be able to cut back or skip fertilization for one year.

Testing soil or plant tissue is crucial to determine the field’s fertility status. A “prescription” fertilizer program using soil analysis is far more cost effective since fertilizer application rates are tailored to the actual needs of the field, Orloff says. This can avoid over fertilization costs or lost yields due to under fertilization. Site-specific fertilization based on several soil or tissue samples across a field can lower fertilizer input costs and improve yields.

When selecting fertilizer, Orloff suggests purchasing material based on the cost per pound (unit) of the actual nutrient needed; rather than the fertilizer’s cost per ton. Research trials have not shown an economic benefit using foliar fertilizer or a complete blend versus granular fertilizer.

Weed control beyond the stand establishment stage is a continual, costly battle for Western alfalfa growers. Whether growers can forgo herbicide applications depends on the weed infestation level and the types of weeds in the field.

Price reductions for hay infested with winter and summer annual weeds range from at least $15-$30/ton. Orloff says weed control is generally economical in low price years. Weedy hay can be an even tougher sell when buyers can purchase less weedy hay at lower prices.

Many growers apply winter dormant weed control late in the season. Applying a soil residual herbicide alone when the weeds are small or not yet emerged could save money. Orloff encourages growers to work closely with a weed management consultant.

The decision to apply an insecticide to control insect pests should be based on integrated pest management practices and economic thresholds. Growers should base treatment decisions on insect counts and beneficial insect numbers, Orloff says, not by applications based on the calendar and tradition.

Generic insecticides can trim insecticide costs in some cases. Another cost-cutting method is to cut the crop early versus applying another insecticide. This approach depends on the alfalfa growth stage and the time remaining before the preferred cutting date.

Holding off on new equipment purchases can be another way to save money. Important factors include the age and condition of the equipment.

Repairing old equipment can be cost effective in the short term — yet at a point old equipment maintenance exceeds its value.

“Generally it is best to purchase new equipment as needed on a regular basis so that not all of the equipment needs replacement at the same time,” Orloff said.

Deficit irrigation is an option to reduce costs, but is generally not cost effective. One method involves the same number of cuttings per season, but reducing the amount of water for each cutting.

“The key to maximizing profit is to know how much water your irrigation system applies, identifying the amount to satisfy evapotranspiration, account for inefficiencies in the irrigation system, and then apply only that amount.”

Severe deficit irrigation is not economical since the yield penalty is too great, Orloff says.

Another irrigation approach is partial-season irrigation where irrigation ceases during the growing season and subsequent cuttings end. Research indicates this practice is agronomically feasible.

Yield is reduced that season, but stand loss does not occur in most locations. Yield fully rebounds the following year in most areas.

Usually this is not economical unless the grower is compensated for irrigation water not applied or when the water is applied to higher value crops.

While eliminating all inputs is tempting in less profitable times, Orloff says this strategy is unrealistic in most cases since the impact can include lower yields and quality.

“The key in low price years is to examine each input and identify the appropriate level that results in maximum economic yield, rather than maximum yield,” Orloff summarized.

Dan Putnam, UCCE Extension forage specialist, also contributed to these alfalfa hay input findings.

email: cblake@farmpress.com