Alfalfa yield numbers gathered by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) are subject to doubt, according to participants in the Midwest Forage Association (MFA) Risk-Reduction Research Summit held Nov. 16-18 in St. Cloud, MN.

“The NASS yield statistics for alfalfa are too low,” said MFA President Beth Nelson at the meeting, held in conjunction with the Minnesota Forage Research Symposium. “The alfalfa statistics are not reflective, we believe, of what people are actually getting, and part of that is how they (NASS) collect the numbers for our crop. But they are willing to sit down and talk to us about it.”

According to NASS, national alfalfa hay yields averaged around 3.34 tons/acre from 2005 to 2009. For 2010, yields averaged 3.44 tons/acre by NASS accounts.

Actual alfalfa yield in Minnesota and Wisconsin can be 5-6 tons/acre on a dry matter basis, many symposium participants argued. Recent research by Mike Rankin, University of Wisconsin Extension agent for Fond du Lac County, backs that up. At the symposium, Rankin reported Wisconsin Alfalfa Yield & Persistence Project findings, gathered over a four-year period, that showed yields and quality of forage harvested from several farms, mostly in the eastern part of the state.

Annual alfalfa yields ranged from 4 to 5 tons/acre across years with individual fields ranging from 2.2 to 6.2 tons/acre, he reported. More of Rankin’s results will be highlighted in the January issue of Hay & Forage Grower, due in mailboxes the first week of the month.

“Real-world” yield is important, said Nelson, who is also president of the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance (NAFA). That’s especially so when NAFA, with MFA as an affiliate, is trying to get bioenergy companies to consider alfalfa as a biomass crop.

“It’s all about low-cost feedstock. If you get more yield per acre, that can drive the cost down,” she said.

Bioenergy companies are given incentives called RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers) to utilize crops that are RFS2-certified. RINs function as somewhat of a currency among refiners, Nelson added.

“Without that certification, it would be very difficult to get our crop looked at as a feedstock,” she said. So Nelson met with Environmental Protection Agency officials last week, asking what was needed to get alfalfa on that certified feedstock list.

“They were very willing to work with us. It does seem as though we should be able to work toward petitioning for it.” Other forages such as switchgrass currently have RFS2 certification.

NAFA is also planning a Washington, D.C., fly-in of members and forage growers to help gain visibility for the crop. The dates are Feb. 15-17. Members interested in attending should call or email the NAFA office at 651-484-3888 or nafa@comcast.net.