Current market prices for wheat and barley make those crops potentially profitable options as small-grain companion crops when establishing alfalfa, according to recent University of Minnesota research. Wheat's current value should give growers extra incentives to choose it over the more commonly used oat crop when starting new alfalfa fields, says Craig Sheaffer, an agronomist at the university. The research showed that alfalfa yields were higher the year following seeding when the crop was established with wheat as compared to oats, barley, field peas or annual flax. Alfalfa yields were the lowest when seeded with field peas. "The peas have good weed control early on, but the weeds gain a foothold later," Sheaffer explains. "The flax did not compete well with the weeds during our trials."

Make sure the companion crop does not overwhelm the alfalfa, he says. "Whenever you interseed two crops, you have to be really on top of what you are doing." He recommends selecting earlier-maturing and shorter-stature companion-crop varieties, reducing the seeding rate, and promptly removing straw so alfalfa is not smothered.

"Another option is to plant a small grain in the spring without the alfalfa underseed, harvest it for grain in the summer and by August 15, seed the alfalfa," Sheaffer says. "This approach eliminates the early season competition, and timely rainfall in late August supplies moisture for germination."

Contact Sheaffer at 612-625-7224.