I just finished writing a couple of stories for our January issue of Hay & Forage Grower on what I decided to call "The Future Of Alfalfa." The idea was to talk with alfalfa breeders and researchers about what alfalfa growers could expect was coming down the pike.
You've probably already guessed that one of those innovations will likely be new varieties of alfalfa with reduced amounts of lignin, making them more digestible and offering growers a wider harvest window. And you'd be right.
But, while some people were telling me what was new, others were telling me there's a problem with alfalfa - that it just hasn't increased in yield anywhere near the pace that corn has.
Breeding company representatives, and some researchers, on the other hand, told me it wasn't fair to compare alfalfa, which has a complicated genetic makeup, to corn. Those representatives and researchers also said that there's an untapped yield potential within alfalfa that a lot of growers haven't taken advantage of.
Yet growers out West are getting irrigated alfalfa yields of 9 tons/acre from seven to eight cuttings per year, said one alfalfa seed company spokesperson. Here in the Midwest, growers who put some energy into growing the crop are getting 4-6 tons/acre over three or four cuttings, typically.
In fact, the newest champ of the World Forage Analysis Superbowl averaged a dry matter yield of 8.3 tons/acre from alfalfa he turned into 298 RFQ haylage right here in Minnesota. A dairyman with just 115 acres of alfalfa, he hopes to hit 10 tons/acre in 2014, depending on the weather.
But USDA's National Ag Statistics Service (NASS) reports a U.S. average alfalfa yield of 3.4 tons/acre. You can imagine that many people are saying that's just too low a number. It is, however, considered an average number from across the U.S. It could be that NASS surveys aren't communicating effectively to get accurate numbers, and growers may not be adjusting moisture content correctly when reporting hay and haylage yields, according to a USDA-Agricultural Research Service report called The Alfalfa Yield Gap: A Review of the Evidence.
But several of those I talked with brought the yield problem back to grower management or lack thereof. So we are left with questions:
• If more growers managed their alfalfa as well as they manage corn, would the increase in yield be economically feasible?
• Or, because alfalfa is already more labor-intense than corn, are seed company reps expecting more from alfalfa growers than they do from corn growers?
• Finally, does alfalfa actually have a much greater yield potential than we realize?
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