After nearly three decades in continuous alfalfa, Lee and Nancy Wilder's Two Hawk Ranch, Sandy Valley, NV, continues to produce big yields of high-quality forage.
The Wilders, who harvest 10 tons/acre over five or six cuttings, successfully thwart autotoxicity problems.
“An alfalfa-after-alfalfa rotation isn't ideal, but we don't have the equipment and expertise to grow other crops, such as grain, fruit or vegetables,” says Lee Wilder. “Because we're not located in an agricultural community, we don't have many farming neighbors to share equipment with. We can't afford to have duplicate sets of machinery just for a rotation.”
A former electrical engineer, Wilder bought the 900-acre ranch at a bankruptcy auction in 1980. He spent considerable time attending symposiums, talking with university and industry experts and reading to learn everything he could about alfalfa management.
“I feel confident in my ability to grow alfalfa, but I don't know beans about other crops,” he says. “If I wanted to raise another crop, I would have to start at the very beginning of the learning curve.”
Wilder replaces his stands every six years. After taking his August cutting in a stand's final year, he removes the alfalfa by disking, plowing, disking a second time and then planing and harrowing to smooth the ground. Reseeding takes place in mid-September, at 20 lbs seed/acre. New stands are irrigated frequently.
“We've gotten very good at taking out old stands and replacing them with new, productive ones,” says Wilder. He credits his farm managers, brothers Jarred and Kale Robinson, with making the process successful.
“Rotating to another crop for a season or two would probably be a good thing to do, but we've been able to be successful without doing that,” he adds. “We used to inter-seed older stands with orchardgrass, barley or oats, but that was too costly for the yields we were getting.”
Steve Orloff, University of California farm advisor, says only a small percentage of Western alfalfa acreage is seeded back to back.
“The typical rotation is six to eight years in alfalfa and then one to two years in a grain crop — grown either for grain or hay — and then back to alfalfa,” says Orloff.
He says growers in California's central valley and low desert often rotate alfalfa with cotton or vegetables and use a much shorter rotation — three to four years of alfalfa is typical.
If growers are going to plant alfalfa after alfalfa, he recommends plowing down the old stand, then waiting at least two weeks to reseed. The potential for autotoxicity lessens in warmer weather and on well-drained soils. A compound called medicarpin, which is concentrated in the leaves, is believed to cause autotoxicity.
“By taking his August cutting and then immediately tearing up the old stand, Lee reduces the potential for autotoxicity because most of the leaves have been taken off the field,” says Orloff.
“I recommend rotating out of alfalfa for at least a year if at all possible. However, I recognize the economics, so I don't object strongly if a grower wants to go back. I don't promote the practice, but I can understand the economic reasons for doing it.”
He says rotating to another crop can also help combat pests.
“Rodents, such as ground squirrels and pocket gophers, are a big problem for many Western growers. Tillage between crops can reduce their numbers and destroy gopher burrows and tunnels. Perennial weeds and stem nematode problems can also be reduced by breaking up the cycle,” says Orloff.
Wilder starts cutting in mid-May and harvests through October. About 600 tons of alfalfa are put up in small bales. The rest is chopped at 3-12% moisture and made into cubes.
While some cubes are sold to dairies, most of the cubes and all of the bales go to the horse market. They're typically delivered bulk in semitrailers or in plastic bags that hold 1,150 lbs each. The bags, which cost $25 each, can be reused about 10 times.
“The bags are very handy,” points out Wilder. “Each one holds enough to feed a full-size horse for two months.”
He recently bought a truck with a small crane and winch to simplify bag handling and delivery.
“Some of my customers have constructed bins to hold the cubes,” he says. “We just swing the crane over the bin, untie the drawstring on the bottom of the bag and let the cubes pour out.”