Two years ago, Bob Emmick thought seeding alfalfa was the best way to take land out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
"I attended meetings sponsored by conservation groups to learn how to best utilize my CRP ground," recalls Emmick. "I saw a video presentation where people sprayed Roundup on CRP land and then no-tilled alfalfa into it. The alfalfa was lush and perfect and I thought, 'Wow, that's going to work perfect for me and be an inexpensive way to convert my ground.' "
Today, this Dakota Dunes, SD, grower realizes that the approach he took was wrong for his farm's heavy, wet soils.
In the fall of '96, he applied Roundup and disked 400 acres of CRP land that had previously been seeded to switchgrass. The following spring, he drilled 15 lbs of alfalfa per acre.
He clipped those acres for weed control last July, then took only one alfalfa cutting. That October cutting averaged about 1 ton per acre.
"I was very disappointed that I could only take one cutting, and it was such poor quality that I used it for grinding hay," says Emmick.
Looking back, he blames the low yield and quality on poor seed-to-soil contact and heavy weed infestations.
"Because of the switchgrass roots that had just been disked the previous fall, the surface was horribly rough and clumpy. Plus, my CRP fields had several anthills that were up to 1' tall.
"There had been weeds sitting out there reproducing and growing for 10 years. Even though I'd taken care to spray and clip the weeds, they came. In some spots, there was every imaginable weed growing."
Emmick, who raises 3,100 acres of alfalfa, soybeans and corn, typically relies heavily on fall tillage. This year, he's taking 1,000 more acres out of CRP. While he would like to seed 1,000 acres of alfalfa, he knows from his past experience that it makes more economic sense to till heavily and plant soybeans.
"Then I'll seed it to alfalfa in 1999."
While seeding alfalfa into CRP didn't work for Emmick, University of Nebraska extension forage specialist Bruce Anderson has seen it succeed. It works best without tillage, he says.
"We have recommended the no-till method very heavily for our CRP fields," Anderson states. "We find lower annual weed problems with no-till and, of course, much less erosion."
To prepare for a no-till seeding, the existing warm-season grasses must be killed and the residue removed from the field. First, clip or shred the tall grass the previous summer - early enough so there will be 6-10" of green, leafy regrowth by September.
"Early September is usually a good time to spray switchgrass because that's when the plants are metabolizing and translocating nutrients to the root system," says Anderson.
Roundup is usually the herbicide of choice. Wait at least two weeks after application. Then, if there's heavy residue on the field from that or previous years' growth, remove it. That can be done by haying or heavy grazing that fall. Or, do a prescribed burn.
"Prescribed burning, which should be done in spring prior to planting, has been our best method," says Anderson.
Check the soil fertility and make any needed adjustments, then use a no-till drill to seed alfalfa into the dead grass stubble, Anderson advises.