This farmer calls alfalfa an ugly third cousin "better-looking than she used to be"
Harlan Anderson doesn’t think much of where alfalfa’s been the past 25 years, but he’s excited about where it could go.
Anderson is the Cokato, MN, farmer, horse-ration entrepreneur and former veterinarian who has hobnobbed with politicians and is known as the father of Freedom To Farm – the 1995 Farm Bill.
A frequent speaker and farm meeting attendee, Anderson’s known for his innovative, bold ideas and his sense of humor. Hay & Forage Grower asked him, as part of its 25-year anniversary celebration, to talk about the forage industry in general and alfalfa specifically.
“I have always referred to alfalfa, when I talk in ag circles, as that ugly third cousin. But she’s a little bit better-looking than she used to be,” Anderson says.
Alfalfa hasn’t made much progress the past 25 years. Production gains have been “dismal,” little research has been done on the crop, and buyers and sellers alike don’t really know what’s in it, he charges.
There hasn’t been much of a production improvement in alfalfa since Vernal, the 1953 public variety used as a check in university trials for many years, Anderson says.
“We haven’t learned how to fertilize alfalfa, we really don’t know what nutritional values are in it and we haven’t learned how to test the moisture, so we don’t really know what’s in the hay.
“As to when we sell hay, rarely does the person buying it have a clue as to what’s in it. So that’s why we can’t get good prices. We don’t have a quality product that we can confirm to sell.”
Rotational graziers, he says, are also missing the boat.
“I’ve never met a cow or other ruminant that’s had a degree in nutrition. I don’t think they go out there to eat what their nutritional needs are; they eat what tastes good. We need to find out, through research, what’s there. We will increase the loading capacity of our pastures by 50% easy if we figure out how to supplement what’s there and make a balanced diet out of it.”
Packaging forages to hold in their nutrients is also needed. Anderson believes up to 50% of all nutrients are lost in baled hay. “We can’t sell hay as baled hay and show the benefits.”
Unbiased research is desperately needed for forages. But land-grant universities have few funds and are subject to influence by special interest groups that have money, he says. Anderson would like to see the Extension service “divorced” from land-grant universities, making it a stand-alone federal agency that can offer unbiased research.
But with all the needs and wants, what has Anderson excited about the future of forages?
“Ironically, for the last 25 years, alfalfa has been the crop that the taxpayer has been wanting to be a part of the farm bill. Alfalfa is the green crop of all green crops. Not only is it green, it’s a soil cleaner, it offers a lot of healthy nutrients to our animals. It’s a much healthier food for our ruminants and other herbivores than cereal grains.
“All we have to do is tell our story. Research has proved that less nitrogen leaves the field and goes into our tile lines and streams and into the Gulf of Mexico and dead zone from alfalfa fields than from any cereal-grain fields. That’s because alfalfa has a very, very long root and not only can it build its own nitrogen, but if there’s nitrogen in the soil to be had, it will take it. It can capture nitrogen leaching its way through soils down to 20’.”
Because it’s a perennial crop, it doesn’t require annual tillage or contribute to erosion, he adds. Mix alfalfa, with its protein, calcium, high level of sugars and fiber, with grasses, which also provide potassium, and there isn’t much else needed to make a nutritionally balanced diet.
But forages’ future hinges on adequate research and education. And Anderson’s optimistic that some solutions will come in the next farm bill.