Most of their neighbors tear up five-year-old alfalfa stands. But Dick and Fritz Coon of Benge, WA, interseed orchardgrass, planning for another three years of production.
The alfalfa-grass hay lets the Coon brothers take advantage of a healthy horse hay market fueled by a growing number of hobby farms throughout eastern Washington.
At $130/ton for horse hay vs. $115 for dairy hay, the mixture is definitely a winner.
“It works very nicely,” says Fritz Coon, adding that this also applies to younger stands that have been thinned by winterkill.
Not only do the Coon brothers get a premium for their horse hay, but by extending the life of a stand they benefit from deferred costs.
Studies have shown that weed control is another benefit of interseeding grasses into thinning alfalfa stands. For example, in a University of California study, the weed content of an interseeded stand was 0-2%, while a comparable alfalfa-only stand was 13% weeds.
The Coons first tried a ryegrass stand extender several years ago. Since then they've increased their interseeded acreage as the demand for horse hay has grown. Today they have over 100 irrigated acres of alfalfa-orchardgrass mixtures.
Tom Platt, Washington State University extension agent, sees more opportunity in the quality horse hay market in the Northwest as the availability of small bales drops. Most commercial hay growers who switch to big bales trade in their small balers and make the large packages exclusively. But the Coons have both types of balers. Platt says they're in a good position to respond to the horse hay market opportunity.
“They know how to put up good-quality hay,” he says. “That gives them an advantage because that's what horse feeders want.”
When the alfalfa is still dormant in early spring, the Coons prep their stands, nicking them with a light dose of Roundup (12 oz/acre). That kills any early emerging weeds and sets the alfalfa back just enough to give the orchardgrass a good, competitive start. They seed 10 lbs/acre of orchardgrass in early April using a no-till drill.
Establishment is gradual.
“In the first year the orchardgrass shows up in the second cutting and is obvious in the third,” says Coon. “By the first cutting of the second year, we're up to 60% orchardgrass and 40% alfalfa.”
Thin alfalfa stands that were producing 5½ tons before interseeding are expected to produce 7 tons/acre in three cuttings after a one-year establishment period.