Garry Lacefield's enthusiasm for alfalfa is unbounded. This Kentucky extension forage agronomist, a well-known, respected authority on the crop, can be heard at many state and national forage conferences. More than that, he's instigated or helped organize so many alfalfa-related events with 20- to nearly 30-year shelf lives that he's earned the title of “Mr. Alfalfa.”

Lacefield will be a primary speaker at the reincarnated National Alfalfa Symposium, hosted by Hay & Forage Grower. It will be held Feb. 4-5 in Kearney, NE, in conjunction with the Mid-America Alfalfa Expo. (See alfalfa symposium.com.)

He's pleased to see alfalfa get the national attention it deserves. Although the crop is the fourth-largest in the U.S., it has, at times, been treated as the ugly stepchild by industry and growers alike. Farmers and seed and chemical representatives know their corn and soybeans, but alfalfa, to many, is simply a rotational crop.

Lacefield has spent 33 years proving it's much, much more.

“I have placed tremendous em-phasis on alfalfa my entire career and have been tremendously rewarded for it,” he says. “I've had opportunities to travel to approximately 40 different countries and, in many, I've been able to see alfalfa play an important role.”

It's certainly been important in Kentucky; alfalfa is historically the highest-yielding, highest-quality forage legume grown in the state. About 270,000 acres of alfalfa or alfalfa-grass mixes are grown each year, according to USDA. The crop is the basis of the state's cash hay industry and an important part of its livestock industry.

The legume continues to amaze Lacefield, especially in a year like the past one.

“It's been my experience that every year when we have a major drought, we come out of that respecting alfalfa more because of its deep root system,” he says.

Lacefield, who has written more than 400 publications, has many times talked about how palatable the crop is and how rich it is in protein, vitamins and minerals. With timely harvest, it's low in fiber and high in energy, he adds.

But when Lacefield started at the University of Kentucky in 1974, he saw that alfalfa's image needed a facelift.

“I teamed with a colleague in doing research on alfalfa,” he recalls. “At that time there was an emphasis on breaking yield barriers. So we put in a study with alfalfa to see, if we gave adequate fertility as well as used good varieties and best management practices, what we could produce.

“In the late '70s we set the high-yield record in Kentucky, which still stands today, of producing over 10 tons of alfalfa dry matter per acre without irrigation,” Lacefield says.

At that time, Kentucky growers averaged only 3.2 tons/acre of alfalfa from stands lasting only three years.

“So the carrot we hung out there was to get off the average and set a goal of 5 tons/acre/year” with five-year stands.

About that same time, Lacefield began field-testing the first power no-till seeder that his Kentucky colleagues had developed. “In the 1980s, we got much more comfortable no-tilling alfalfa and using various combinations of competition control, including chemicals. We're still learning about that. But in this state, an increasing percentage of alfalfa continues to be seeded via no-till techniques.”

Lacefield's open manner and ability to listen has endeared him to colleagues and growers. Early in his career, a grower-friend flatly told Lacefield that other growers weren't seeing the advantages of growing alfalfa. His “mentor and idol,” former University of Kentucky forage specialist Warren Thompson, also helped inspire Lacefield to develop the first Kentucky Alfalfa Conference. Now in its 28th year, the conference was sponsored by the Certified Alfalfa Seed Council (now known as the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance).

To bring new, practical alfalfa information to Kentucky growers, Lacefield traveled the U.S. and around the world. One of his first foreign trips was to view Argentine cattle grazing huge fields of alfalfa.

That was his inspiration to en-courage the use of grazing in his state and organize the first of two National Alfalfa Grazing Confer-ences.

“The conferences really started a lot of emphasis on grazing — we continue to emphasize it today. And we've made progress with alfalfa as a grazing crop. But I still believe that the potential is virtually untapped for that plant in that particular arena.”

The past six years he's helped produce the five-state Heart of America Grazing Conference. He also developed a conference called “Forages at KCA” for the local cattlemen's association.

As ideal as alfalfa is for grazing, its major use is as hay, and growers have had a problem harvesting it at good quality. “The spring cutting, normally taken in early May, is a big challenge for us because it rains a lot in Kentucky and throughout the East in May. We needed something else,” Lacefield says.

Mike Collins, a fellow agronomist at Kentucky, was researching round-bale silage, or baleage, which Lace-field recognized as a major tool to advance alfalfa's use. “That's been one of the biggest breakthroughs, at least for us in the South — to be able to capture more of the quality out of alfalfa in that first harvest and lose less to rain.”

Auburn University forage agronomist Don Ball, who toured Argentina and co-authored a book with Lace-field, is one of many people who have nominated him for awards for his dedication to alfalfa.

“Thanks mainly to Garry's efforts, the level of appreciation of, and knowledge about, alfalfa within Kentucky is impressive,” says Ball. “He has conducted many training sessions for county agents, other agency personnel, farm store managers and others, in which he has emphasized alfalfa. He also developed and taught a graduate-level course on alfalfa at the University of Kentucky.”

From that graduate course curriculum, he was asked to provide an all-encompassing, three-day alfalfa seminar.

He didn't take long in answering, in part because he realized this was an opportunity to educate the industry on a national level about alfalfa's merits and capabilities. Other well-regarded forage experts joined the effort: Ball; Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin; Neal Martin, now with the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center; Marvin Hall, Pennsylvania State University; and Clive Holland, with Pioneer Hi-Bred.

That team, in 1993, created the twice-a-year Alfalfa Intensive Training Seminar. More than 850 people, the majority industry representatives, have gone through the seminars. This spring's session will be their 30th.

“I always have them introduce themselves,” says Lacefield about session participants. “Then I'll think, ‘Goodness, how intimidating for a country boy from Kentucky to speak to these, oftentimes, world authorities on alfalfa — presidents of companies and market directors and people who have developed all these wonderful alfalfa varieties.’”

He has the same reaction with the growers who attend — mostly large-acre, conscientious farmers.

As valuable as the sessions are to the alfalfa industry, Lacefield gets as much or more back. “I've been able to develop friendships over the years and have brought these leaders in to speak at my state conferences. It's been an asset for me and my producers to have that network.”

A prolific writer, Lacefield started his first monthly forage newsletter in 1975 and hasn't missed a publication date. He also didn't hesitate to start his own Web site when the Internet was just coming into being.

But Lacefield shines most when he can talk, one-on-one or to hundreds — about alfalfa.

Lacefield Reports On Grazing At National Alfalfa Symposium

In addition to all the other alfalfa-related events Garry Lacefield has been involved in or created, he has hosted at least three National Alfalfa Symposiums.

“I'm so glad the National Alfalfa Symposium is being rejuvenated. It exposes people to the next level of expertise. It gives them the opportunity to network and to interact with people outside their state borders.”

The symposium will be held Feb. 4-5 at the Ramada Inn and Confer-ence Center in Kearney, NE, in conjunction with the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association's Mid-America Alfalfa Expo (to be held Feb. 5-6). The symposium's highlights will include a grower marketing panel, a roundtable discussion on Roundup Ready alfalfa and an investigative report on forage testing.

Lacefield will talk about alfalfa's use as a grazing crop and also provide the Feb. 4 banquet entertainment in a tribute to patriotism. The agronomist has served in the army in Germany, where he saw his first large fields of alfalfa.

As the eldest of 10 children growing up “in the heart of the Kentucky coalfields,” Lacefield, now 62, remembers hand-tying hay bales at a stationary baler, farming with mules and horses and graduating from putting salt on hay to keep it from getting too hot — to operating a dump rake.

“I need to emphasize,” he says, “that I'm not really that old. I just came from a very poor community.”

Forage Lab Subsampling Lowers Test Accuracy, New Report Shows

Many forage-testing labs are subsampling — analyzing only small portions of submitted samples — and that negatively affects test result accuracy, according to an investigative report on the subject.

Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist, and Bruce Anderson, his counterpart at the University of Nebraska, will report their findings the second day of the 2008 National Alfalfa Symposium, to be held Feb. 4-5 in Kearney, NE.

“We did two trials, one under the auspices of the National Forage Testing Association (NFTA) and a second with help from the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association,” says Undersander. Portions of several bales were chopped to look like cored samples. Sandwich-bag-sized samples were sent to members of the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association (N.A.M.A.) and National Hay Association (NHA) to send to labs of their choice.

Growers welcomed the opportunity to test forage lab performance. “Because of customer complaints and problems, as well as through our own producer discovery, we would like to know why test results continue to be varied from lab to lab,” says Martin Freed, a Loomis, NE, hay grower and N.A.M.A. member.

The growers had labs analyze the samples, then requested the samples back and sent them, along with the results, to be ground and tested a second time using near-infrared equations from NFTA. In the past, growers have sent split samples to test lab accuracy, Undersander says. Labs countered by saying the samples were not identical, so they couldn't expect the results to be the same.

But the NHA and N.A.M.A. samples were compared to analysis of the samples returned from laboratories. That meant both sets of results — from labs and from NFTA — could be compared fairly.

“I was really disappointed how many labs sent back unground samples,” says Undersander. “That means they only subsampled a small portion of the sample they received and ground it. What I am finding is, people talk about grower subsampling, but laboratory subsampling is probably where the issue is.”

Labs will have the chance to redeem themselves, Undersander says. He's sent letters to labs with problems, offering NFTA help. Data on labs that don't work to correct errors will be released, he adds.

“We want to use this as leverage to get them to do it right. We don't want to make people look bad unduly. But, in the end, if they don't (work to correct problems), then people ought to know about it.”

Of 20 labs investigated, three or four passed with flying colors, he says.

2008 National Alfalfa Symposium Program

Click to view the entire schedule

To register, visit alfalfasymposium.com or call 800-722-5334, ext. 14695. Registration is $125/person.