Gumbo that once was only good for pasture is some of the most profitable land in Saskatchewan's Carrot River Valley. Alfalfa has changed it.
“Crops never used to be quite as good until we started growing more alfalfa,” says Brad Schiltroth, Ridgedale, SK.
He says alfalfa roots go deep to find moisture. That helps the heavy clay soils dry out faster following wet spells.
Roots 5' long will trail behind a disker ripping up an old alfalfa stand in dry conditions. “They're the size of your thumb and pretty wiry, too,” says Schiltroth.
One area resident dug a hole with a backhoe to track the depth of alfalfa roots. The trail ended 16' deep.
“If they go that deep, they definitely help get the moisture out,” Schiltroth states.
He and his father, Mark, grow 16,000 acres of crops, including 900-1,600 acres of alfalfa. The alfalfa produces hay for three or four years, then switches to seed. Some fields stay in alfalfa for 10 years.
Clay soils are hard to work when wet. But for alfalfa seed production, the heavier the clay, the better, he says. His toughest land has knolls that go from being too wet to almost rock hard.
For a few years, once the alfalfa is off, the land is useful for flax or grain. Decaying alfalfa roots release a good supply of nitrogen.
“Alfalfa has really helped in those fields. I think that's why it's so popular: it's pretty tough and it handles the conditions very well,” he says.
Eventually, he kills the poorest alfalfa with herbicides in fall, then direct-seeds flax the next spring.
“The air drill seems to ruffle up the dandelions and get them growing. About three days later, we go in with glyphosate. It stunts the (volunteer) alfalfa, and kills dandelions, thistles and quackgrass. In a month or six weeks, we're back with Curtail M. It really smokes the alfalfa but doesn't hurt the flax.”
The next crop probably will be oats. Crop options then are open and depend partly on soil conditions.
Alfalfa hay and seed make a good return on investment most years. Input costs are low to moderate; returns can be very high.
Two alfalfa dehy plants take all the hay the valley can supply. A third plant is specialized for alfalfa seed.
The dehy plants manage hay production and pay landowners “in the range of $50-80/acre” each year, Schiltroth reports. The payments offset fixed costs like taxes, depreciation, interest and management. Average hay yield is 2-2½ tons/acre.
When the hay contract is done, Schiltroth becomes responsible for seed production costs. They include up to five insecticide applications, a combine for harvesting the seed and a supply of leafcutter bees to pollinate the crop. Custom pollinators manage that side in exchange for a crop share.
Markets pay 30¢-$1.10/lb for seed, averaging around 90¢/lb.
“A lot of times, minimum yield is 150 lbs,” he says. “My brother-in-law had one field go 600 lbs in the fourth or fifth year of seed production. A few years ago, our one-third crop share was $150-170/acre.”