Afalfa is literally gaining ground in the South. Traditionally bermudagrass and tall-fescue territory, the region recently is sporting fields of the perennial legume – interseeded into bermudagrass.
In Georgia, for example, a handful of traditional bermuda-hay growers have taken to fall-planting alfalfa into suppressed and closely clipped bermudagrass. They harvest additional, nearly pure alfalfa cuttings early in spring and later in fall. By summer cuttings, their bermudagrass comes on strong.
The growers find that the extra management and time required to grow and harvest alfalfa are more than worth it.
“We run registered Brangus cattle. We were interested in improving the quality of the hay and what attracted us to the alfalfa is the fact that we could cut our nitrogen (N) back,” says Mike Coggins of Blackwater Cattle Co. and Coggins Farms at Lake Park, on the state’s southern line.
The legume’s N-fixing capabilities, as fertilizer costs continue to climb, replace the 200 lbs of N per acre that bermudagrass needs to flourish, points out Coggins, who has a 1,000-head herd.
His hay’s protein content increased from the typical 14-16% for bermudagrass to 18-22% with alfalfa. The producer interseeded 30 acres nearly five years ago and now has 200 acres of alfalfa-bermudagrass under irrigation. He estimates he’s getting 10 tons/acre/year from seven to eight cuttings.
“Since I planted alfalfa into bermudagrass,” adds Albert Hale, Watkinsville, “soil tests have shown that I don’t need any nitrogen.” He farms 700 acres and milks 115 cows at Hale Dairy with his father, John, and son, Carlton. They also manage a 100,000-bird poultry operation.
Although many area growers apply poultry litter to bermudagrass for the N, Hale says he doesn’t have enough to go around and that the farm is too close to Athens. “We work really hard to be good neighbors, and poultry litter stinks.”
He now gets five to six hay cuttings a year with a quality boost to 21.5-22% protein on early and late alfalfa cuttings. “That really helps us in our feeding. For one thing, it helps make more milk. It also cuts back on the protein that we have to buy.”
A milk yield increase of 2-4 lbs/cow/day “doesn’t sound like much,” Hale says. “We feed for maximum production anyway, and the increase is really more of a decrease in feed costs than it is an increase in milk production.”
He’s devoted 25 acres of his dryland bermudagrass to interseeding (see photo above) and will add more alfalfa if he adds an irrigation system.
An alfalfa-bermudagrass system lets commercial hay grower Bill Grubb market alfalfa for $12/small square bale vs. the $6/bale he charges for bermuda and ryegrass hay, all grown for horse and dairy-goat customers. “My bermuda and rye round rolls are $55/bale and $135/bale for alfalfa,” says Grubb, from Comer in northeastern Georgia.
Dairy goats milked twice a day need the extra protein the alfalfa provides, he adds. “And horse owners? They just want to take care of their animals. If you pay $20,000 for a horse, you’re going to take it to the shows. You’re going to exercise it. You’re going to run it on a regular basis, and it needs protein.”
He, too, enjoys the N fertilizer savings and harvests about 18,000 small square and round bales per year of alfalfa, bermudagrass and ryegrass.
Successfully establishing and harvesting the alfalfa are the system’s biggest challenges, say the growers, all of whom are participating in a University of Georgia program promoting it.
“It does require some management,” says Coggins. “A lot of folks will just plant their bermudagrass and let it go.”
With alfalfa added to the mix, however, he keeps his soil pH between 6.5 and 7 and takes soil samples to maintain good potash levels. Grubb watches potash as well as phosphorus levels.
The university recommends seeding 22-25 lbs/acre of alfalfa a half-inch deep on 7-9” rows after the bermudagrass is cut or grazed short and a contact herbicide is applied to suppress growth. After alfalfa emerges, an insecticide is applied.
“When you first plant alfalfa, you have to watch for grasshoppers, because grasshoppers get it right quick,” Hale says.
Grubb likes how environmentally friendly the system is as opposed to planting in bare ground – especially if violent thunderstorms follow. “When you thin bermudagrass and then overseed it with alfalfa, you don’t have to worry about your thunderstorm causing your crop to wash away.”
The Georgia program recommends Bulldog 505 and Bulldog 805 alfalfa varieties developed by the University of Georgia.
“One of the major disadvantages of the alfalfa is that it’s difficult to put up dry in our climate,” Coggins says. To combat that, he makes round-bale silage (see photo below) using an inline wrapper. “We cut this alfalfa, we get it down to 50% moisture, we’re rolling it, and then we make haylage out of it.”
In spring and fall, when the humidity is lower, he square bales dry hay.
Hale also finds alfalfa difficult to harvest. “You really have to pick the day you are going to cut it, hoping the weatherman will give you some low humidity for about three days.”
He feels, because bermudagrass is drier, that it balances out the more-moist alfalfa when it comes to storing the crops.
Once the hay is field-dried, he chops and piles it in his commodity shed, ready to include in a total mixed ration for his dairy cows. “We really feel like we have alfalfa meal.”
Patience is the key to harvesting alfalfa in a humid climate, and bermuda-hay growers aren’t used to needing it, says Grubb. “They have this slam-bam mentality and, with ryegrass and bermudagrass, you can get away with that.” Bermudagrass hay, which dries quickly compared to alfalfa, can be baled at a 2,000-bale rate in a six-hour window, he adds.
Grubb uses a hay preservative, which adds to his costs, and bales in the morning and late afternoon, when it’s cool and damp and his alfalfa won’t lose leaves. He feels he’s had a good day when 600 bales are put up.
His fields are custom-harvested, and Grubb pays a higher per-bale rate for alfalfa because it takes longer to harvest than does bermudagrass. But the increase in number of hay cuttings – and the fact that he’s contracted for all harvests – has the harvester happy to have Grubb’s business, he says.
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