Yield: Is It The Alfalfa Or Its Management?

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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?

If you want to add your two-cents’ worth, please comment below.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

Eric Anderson (not verified)
on Jan 7, 2014

More alfalfa growers should be putting more emphasis into nutritional balancing of the soil, up to 2 years prior to planting the crop, and right at planting. If better tillage practices, soil nutrition(of more than just P, K, a little S & a splash of B), and cutting management going into fall and winter were followed, alfalfa would reward the grower greatly. Too often I see growers investing the nutrition for 2 ton/ac yields expecting to "rob" 4 to 5 ton/ac yields from their fields. Those days are gone on most farms. A "Systems Approach" to green forage management is necessary to expect yields to appreciably increase on the average farm. If you have a cow with the potential to produce 30,000 lb/lactation, or more, you don't manage her feeding program at 22,000 lb/lactation. Why do so with your aflalfa acres?

Ross Palmer (not verified)
on Jan 14, 2014

Could not agree with you more. Here in Australia the case is very similar. Too often alfalfa growers are quick to blame the variety and not themselves for the disappointing yields. Being a much less intensive farming system with a variable and unpredictable climate it can be difficult to maximise the yield potential of the variety. Having said that though there is a massive opportunity for growers to increase forage yields. My thoughts are that growers should be more focused on their management and getting the basics right such as nutrition, grazing and cutting management before suggesting that the variety breeding efforts are lagging behind.

Maximiliano Piñeiro (not verified)
on Feb 18, 2014

It´s the same in Argentina!!! Yield improvement on new Varieties are only shown in Experimental Fields, not on the farms. The reason it´s at sight ¨Poor Management¨

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