Alfalfa can deliver much higher yields than many people think. Dan Undersander has a proposal for correcting their misperception, and we think he’s on the right track.

The problem is rooted in the way USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reports hay yields, says the University of Wisconsin Extension forage agronomist. In its Crop Production 2010 Summary, published in January, NASS estimated the average yield of alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures harvested for hay at 3.4 tons/acre nationally and 2.9 tons/acre in Wisconsin.

Those “miserably low” figures are widely quoted, says Undersander.

“You hear people talking about it,” he says. “They’re saying why grow alfalfa if the yield is only three tons?”

But on dairy farms, at least one alfalfa cutting and usually more are taken as haylage, and that production isn’t included in the NASS hay-yield figures.

“The alfalfa hay data is hay-yield only from those harvests cut for hay,” says Undersander.

Another page of the same report combines alfalfa hay, haylage and greenchop yields on a dry-hay-equivalent basis for Wisconsin and 17 other states. Those figures are more respectable but less widely publicized. NASS estimated Wisconsin’s 2010 all-alfalfa forage yield at 4.02 tons/acre.

Some growers routinely do better than that, and a few occasionally harvest 10 tons or more of alfalfa dry matter per acre. He wants those higher yields publicized so folks will know that alfalfa can still hold its own against other crops, especially when its rotational benefits are considered.

He’s proposing that seed companies annually identify customers who harvest 10 tons/acre or more and promote their achievements in company newsletters, on Web sites, etc. With enough participation, new “10-Ton Alfalfa Club” members could be recognized at World Dairy Expo at the same time World Forage Analysis Superbowl finalists are honored.

“The whole idea is to find a way to get some recognition of high alfalfa yields,” he says. “We want it to be a national thing.”

Ten-ton yields are possible almost everywhere, he adds. “It takes some really superior management and a little bit of luck.”

Getting someone to weigh forage from several cuttings on multiple farms to verify yields would be one of the challenges, but Undersander doesn’t think that would be necessary. Many dairy producers weigh haylage going into bunkers, commercial hay growers know how many tons they sell and seed companies are trustworthy, he says.

If yield verification is needed for credibility, maybe the forage from one cutting could be weighed by a third party, and the recognition would be for a high-yielding single cutting, says Undersander.

“If somebody else has a better idea, I’m wide open, but the point is we need to do something to get some high yield numbers out there.”

Undersander’s proposal merits further discussion. A program like the one he envisions might improve alfalfa’s image, reverse the long-term trend toward fewer and fewer acres of the crop and make it more attractive to biofuel companies considering it as a biomass crop.

We believe that full-season yields would have to be measured for grower recognition to be meaningful. In addition to seed companies, Extension workers and forage association would need to be involved. Hay & Forage Grower would certainly welcome being a part of this endeavor.

To contact Undersander, email him at djunders@wisc.edu.