An estimated 20 percent of California's 1.1 million acres of alfalfa is Roundup Ready varieties just 18 months after the first herbicide-resistant alfalfas were introduced.

Within four years, Bill Cox, Monsanto seed systems manager, expects it to be 90 percent.

For Tulare County, Calif., dairyman/farmer Tom Barcellos, the quicker he gets to 100 percent Roundup-resistant alfalfa the better.

No transgenic crop has experienced quicker acceptance than Roundup Ready alfalfa.

And the reason is simple; it is producing more high quality alfalfa with less production cost per acre and the promise of longer stand life.

Cox of Visalia, Calif., has been a seed salesman for 33 years and he has never seen farmers adopt anything quicker.

“Growers are telling me they are saving $40 to $50 per acre in herbicide costs over conventional varieties. The quality is better because it is weed free,” said Cox.

It's also producing more because growers are not using harsh herbicides to control weeds. In a side by side comparison, Cox said a local grower produced a half ton more baled hay per acre off Roundup Ready alfalfa in his first four dairy-quality hay cuttings and received $10 more per ton for high TDN and protein.

Sounds almost too good to be true. However, for third-generation farmer-dairyman Tom Barcellos of Tipton, Calif., it is no hype.

“Six years of growing Roundup Ready corn and three years of Roundup Ready cotton convinced me the technology works,” said Barcellos, who operates an 800-cow dairy and a custom harvesting and hauling business as well as farms.

“Roundup Ready alfalfa yields more consistently and is a better crop than conventional alfalfa for basically one reason; we don't have to knock the pants off of it with herbicides.

“We have been battling weeds in alfalfa in California for years because we really have not had the chemicals to take out things like bermudagrass and johnsongrass in alfalfa without hurting the alfalfa,” said Barcellos, who farms 1,800 acres and already has 25 percent of his alfalfa in herbicide-resistant varieties. Nutsedge is another major weed in alfalfa. Roundup will not kill it, but Barcellos said glyphosate will suppress it without damaging plants.

That is easily worth the $6 per pound he paid for Roundup Ready alfalfa seed vs. $2.50 for conventional seed.

People will tell you it is the traffic in harvesting an alfalfa field eight times a year in the central valley that is a major factor in reducing stand life. “What really takes alfalfa stands out in California after three years is chemical damage and weed pressure,” emphasized Barcellos.

Interseeding crops

Barcellos now puts in extra effort to leave a conventional alfalfa stand in for longer than the “normal” three years. He does it now with interseeding other crops.

“What we do now is plant 25 pounds of oats per acre in a weakening third or fourth year conventional alfalfa stand. Just enough not to smother the alfalfa. The oats seem to rejuvenate the alfalfa. I can remember my grandfather doing this by chiseling the ground and planting oats. We do it no-till,” he said.

The oat/alfalfa mix is baled. “The oats are a huge factor in the dairy. When you feed dry cows oats as they are ready to freshen, you have less milk fever. Dairymen buy oats for that reason, but by mixing the oats with the alfalfa we don't have to buy oats,” he said.

That fourth year stand of alfalfa is then swathed and baled for the remainder of the year. In the spring, the fifth year alfalfa stand is taken out, but not before Barcellos interplants Roundup Ready no-till corn.

“Of course I take the conventional alfalfa out with Roundup, but with Roundup Ready alfalfa I can no longer do that. However, I don't see a problem. I'll just use Shark to take out the alfalfa,” he explained.

With glyphosate-resistant alfalfa, he expects to alter his rotation. He expects the Roundup Ready alfalfa stand to be economically productive for at least four or five years.

“A lot of guys say they need to take alfalfa out after three years for rotation, even if it is a good stand. Why spend money to remove something that has productive life in it?” said Barcellos, who points out that alfalfa stands in the intermountain region of the West have been in for 15 years.

‘Leave alfalfa alone’

“Sure, they are cut only three times per year and do not have the compaction issues we do with eight cuttings, but still rotation is no reason to take a stand out. Just put wheat and corn in another field and leave the alfalfa alone.”

One of the big issues with glyphosate-resistant crops is herbicide resistance.

Barcellos and Cox do not believe that will be a major issue with this new biotech crop.

Both point out that alfalfa is cut on a 28-30-day schedule and that precludes weeds from going to seed. When it is bagged like Barcellos does with his first and last alfalfa cuttings, any resistant weeds are out of the field before they go to seed.

“There are weeds Roundup will not control. Six are because of resistance. There also are tough weeds to control, not weeds resistant to glyphosate. Monsanto has sold Roundup for 27 years and it has never controlled stinging nettle. It will not now. Put some Pursuit herbicide in the tank if you have stinging nettle,” said Cox.

As much as 44 ounces of Roundup per acre can be used at one time. The crop is labeled for 132 ounces of Roundup in a season. “If you find something is tough to control, increase the Roundup or use another herbicide in a tank mix,” he added.

Although Barcellos has been recognized for his no-till/minimum-till farming, he says all his fields eventually are tilled whether it is to knock down borders for another crop or just laser leveling. Tillage is another way to ward off resistance.

“If we have to chop when it is too wet and there is a compaction issue from the trucks, we will go in and chisel the ground.

“We also have enough variation in our rotation and use of herbicides on crops other than alfalfa that I don't think we will have resistance problems as they do in the Midwest were they have only a few crops and no-till to conserve moisture and save fertilizer,” Barcellos said.

‘Can triple crop’

“Our land is too valuable to single crop. We can triple crop in a season here. For example, we can plant wheat in the fall and green chop it in the spring and get 18 tons off it. Follow that with no-till corn and get 30 to 34 tons of forage and finish up with no-till sorghum/Sudan and get 11 tons off the first chop and 7 off the second.

“You are talking about a potential of 60 tons to 75 tons of feed per acre per season,” he said.

Intense farming like that is one reason Barcellos sold his cotton picker at the post World Ag Expo farm equipment auction this year.

“Cotton no longer makes economic sense when you can produce that much feed for the dairy industry, whether it is for my own dairy or for sale. I just sold '06 dry cow hay for $160 per ton. Dairy quality hay is selling for $215 per ton,” he said.

“Economics is also the reason I got out of the grape business and expanded the forages. I spent $1,200 per acre to produce a wine grape crop on 67 acres. When the crop was ready to harvest, it would have cost me more to harvest and haul the grapes than the winery would pay me. I pushed the vineyard out with the grapes still on the vines,” said Barcellos.

The Tulare County dairy industry is driving farming in the county. Barcellos says the same thing is happening with new dairies in Kern County and on the West side of Fresno County.

The insatiable demand for forages is the driving force behind Barcellos farming, and Roundup Ready alfalfa is helping him reduce costs and increase income in meeting that demand.