Test, then fertilize. Orloff suggests growers fertilize using a prescription approach rather than a recipe in which they apply the same nutrients every year. Soil and tissue tests should be utilized so growers know what nutrients are missing, then tailor their fertilization programs to match.

Don’t skimp on sampling, he says. “A lot of alfalfa growers don’t (test), and if they do it’s only before planting, not during the life of the stand.” Cost shouldn’t be a deterrent; tests can pay for themselves several times over, he adds.

“Yield potential is limited by the most deficient nutrient.” Grid sampling showing where nutrients are lacking in a field is a better approach than using average nutrient levels of the whole field that can cover up deficient areas. “Our fields aren’t that uniform.”

Harvest for maximum returns. In years when hay prices spike, growers who sell their hay may want to focus on quantity over quality.

“We’d like to see growers adjust their cutting schedules for the economic conditions that year,” Orloff says. “It’s the yield-quality trade-off.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but data from California’s Central Valley shows that, when hay prices rise, the spread between prices of supreme- and fair-quality alfalfa actually shrinks. When prices fall, that gap grows.

For example, in 2008 the average price of supreme-quality alfalfa was about $240/ton. For fair-quality alfalfa, the price was just over $200/ton. Two years earlier, when supreme hay sold for about $160/ton, the spread between the two was more than $60.

Better-manage water use. Nothing, Orloff says, limits yield more than poor irrigation management. That’s why he recommends soil moisture sensors to measure moisture levels at different depths. Sensors can help growers know when or whether to irrigate, whether they filled their soil profiles, and whether they need to make changes.

As a general rule, the amount of irrigation applied over a season should resemble a bell curve, with peak water application in midsummer when crop water use is highest. A steadfast rule of two to three irrigations per cutting isn’t always accurate. “There are a lot of cases where growers are under-irrigating in the summer and over-irrigating in the fall because they have the same number of irrigations between cuttings.”

Sensors can alert growers when fields are getting too dry, so they can irrigate enough to keep the soil moist without conflicting with harvest.

Orloff has a few simple tips to make water go a long way. Always check soil moisture content early in the season to know when to begin irrigating. “Sometimes you get spring rains and you think you’re fine, but you’re only wet on the top 6” of soil.” Make sure to begin the season with a full profile, and try to maintain adequate moisture throughout cuttings because it’s hard to play catch-up.

If you’re short on water, irrigate in spring when you get the highest yield.