Bryce Scrimsher likes learning new things, and thought growing alfalfa would be a good way to improve the soil in recently purchased and rented fields.

Those are two of the reasons he started growing the crop for seed four years ago. Since then he’s found that producing alfalfa seed is difficult, expensive and has a steep learning curve. He harvested less than 100 lbs/acre the first year. But yields are better now, and Scrimsher has implemented two important cost-cutting measures, so the crop is showing a small profit.

“There have been some challenges, but I think we’re overcoming those and getting it more fine-tuned,” says Scrimsher, of Culdesac, ID.

He’s one of a number of Western farmers who, on an experimental basis, are producing alfalfa seed without irrigation. Much of the nation’s seed crop is produced on irrigated fields near cities such as Boise, ID, and Walla Walla, WA, where land is under development pressure. Long-time growers are selling their land and leaving the business, so seed companies are testing production in dryland areas, reports Jose Arias, director of seed production for Forage Genetics International.

His company has contracted with selected dryland growers in the Palouse region of southeastern Washington and north-central Idaho, where wheat is the No. 1 crop. Alfalfa seed yields were low in 2007 and 2008, which essentially were establishment years, says Arias.

“This is our second year of production up in the Palouse, and we’re getting very comparable yields there as in dryland production in Canada,” he says. “Our growers had a wet season and were able to get a nice crop this year.”

He estimates that the 2010 dryland crop averaged close to 400 lbs/acre. Although that’s far less than the amount typically brought in from irrigated fields, these growers’ costs are lower. Plus, they’re capturing alfalfa’s rotational benefits.

“They’re looking at it from a profit standpoint, but also they’re looking at it as a good source of nitrogen-building for their soils,” says Arias.

He says alfalfa seed production “takes a lot of time and effort to get it done properly.” Pollination and insect control during pollination are two of the biggest challenges.

Alfalfa is usually pollinated by leafcutter bees, which nest in precut holes in boards. They’re more effective than honeybees, in part because they’re smaller. If insect control is needed while the bees are in fields, the spraying is usually done at night when the bees are inactive, using a chemical that won’t kill the pollinators.

Scrimsher did one early morning insecticide application this year and also routinely sprays for insects a week before putting bees out. After buying bees from other growers the first two years, he began raising his own to reduce costs. Leafcutter bees need a controlled environment, so they’re raised in insulated buildings with heat and air conditioning.

Bees overwinter as larvae, and are managed so they’re ready to emerge as adults when the alfalfa is blooming.

“It worked well this year,” he says. “We multiplied our bees and actually will have some to sell now.”

Raising and marketing bees, he adds, “is something my kids can do to maybe earn a little extra money and learn how to run a business.”
In fields, bees are housed in shelters, one shelter per 10 acres. Scrimsher puts out 1-2 gallons of bees per acre, fewer than are placed in irrigated fields with higher yield potential.

Pollination takes about four weeks, then the seed crop is ready to harvest about 30 days later. First, though, it has to be defoliated, either with a burndown herbicide such as Gramoxone or by swathing. Scrimsher sprayed in past years, but cut costs by swathing in 2010.

“Swathing works well as long as you don’t get a windstorm,” he says. “Windstorms are hard on windrows and we did have one.”

He harvests using his own older-model combine that he says does a better job cleaning than some newer machines. Scrimsher averaged about 300 lbs of clean seed per acre this year, with one field yielding close to 400 lbs. His contract prices range from $1.50 to $2/lb.