There are a lot of reasons alfalfa isn't grown in the South, says Paul McKie, North Augusta, SC. “They are all valid,” he adds.
Heat, humidity, insects and weeds plague the crop. “Anything negative in the environment will attack it, from cutworms to deer,” McKie says.
Still, McKie, his wife Phyllis, brother Milton and nephew Bobby don't let the challenges keep them from delivering alfalfa baleage averaging 23% protein and 160-170 relative feed value to their dairy customers.
To keep 200 acres in production, McKie starts a year in advance by concentrating on weed control and fertility in the crop he's currently growing. He usually tries to follow corn with a summer crop of millet. He fertilizes and limes, then no-tills alfalfa into the millet stubble in October.
“We've been no-tilling since the early '70s,” he comments. “We have steep hills and red clay and are trying to farm land that shouldn't be farmed.”
By the following February, he has to treat for insects. Most years, he sprays seven times.
“We know the alfalfa weevils are going to be there, plus we have loopers, leafhoppers and hot weather cutworms.”
Weeds are sprayed an average of four times a year. Since alfalfa doesn't go into a true dormancy in his area, he's limited to the herbicides he can use during the growing season.
“It's difficult to find a good broadleaf herbicide for use in alfalfa,” he says.
Then there's mold. “Alfalfa will literally mold overnight,” says McKie.
Harvest brings its own set of challenges. After realizing that putting up dry hay is generally a lesson in futility, he harvests and sells the forage as bale silage.
“Cows love it and it's good from a performance standpoint,“ he says.
McKie harvests every 30 days, usually starting in early April and going through the first part of November. With adequate rainfall, he normally gets around 8 tons/acre.
After cutting, he lets the alfalfa dry to 40-50% moisture, which usually takes 24 to 36 hours. He uses a silage inoculant when he bales, and wraps the bales as quickly as possible.
Each lot of bales is identified by field and date. He sends samples to the Clemson University forage lab, then sells baleage based on quality and dry matter content.
“The customer gets what he pays for,” says McKie.
If the alfalfa gets rained on during harvest and isn't top quality, McKie feeds it to the dairy heifers he custom grows and breeds for a Georgia dairy. If it's low quality, he feeds it to his beef herd.
That screening arrangement suits dairyman Joel Riley, Saluda, SC, just fine. “I can be assured of getting top-quality haylage and it's available locally,” he says.
Even though alfalfa has its headaches, McKie will continue to grow it and make bale silage for dairy clients.
“We were in the dairy business ourselves until '98 and we fed it. We know it will work.”
Midwest Hay Conference Is March 13-14
Hay growers tell what has worked for them in their successful businesses at the opening session of Hay & Forage Grower's March 13-14 Midwest Hay Business Conference. It will be held at the KCI Expo Center, Kansas City, MO.
A trade show and sessions make up the program. Topics include: biotech traits in alfalfa, hay marketing, organic hay, financial planning, selling to the horse industry and solutions to alfalfa production problems.
Registration costs $150 for one person and $125 for each additional person from an operation. For registration information, visit www.hayconference.com or contact Cindy Kramer at 800-722-5334, or firstname.lastname@example.org.