Quality alfalfa hay is a goal Clarence Stearns and Mike Kelliher share. And both are in hot pursuit of another goal: a 10-ton/acre average yield.
These western Nebraska growers figure it's a goal well within their reach. Kelliher is averaging about 7.5 tons/acre, "... in an average year," he says. Stearns was averaging around 6 tons/acre, year in and year out, until he began a new fertilization program three years ago.
"Now we're getting close to 9.5 tons/acre, and I know we can do better," he says.
While Stearns' and Kelliher's goals are similar, their operations are not. Stearns, a North Platte cow-calf producer and cattle feeder, feeds every ounce of hay he harvests from about 400 acres. He also grows corn and wheat and has a hog operation.
Kelliher is a cash hay grower, working with his father, Charles, and brother Tim. They produce and market hay from more than 3,000 alfalfa acres near Kearney.
Kelliher and Stearns say good hay yields start with variety selection. Varieties must be fine-stemmed, leafy and regrow quickly after cutting.
Both growers figure a properly managed alfalfa stand should be producing well into its sixth or seventh year, and both rotate to corn when a stand is spent, usually for two or three years. Kelliher specializes in hay, so he leases alfalfa ground to other farmers when it's time to plant corn.
While corn is in the rotation, Kelliher almost always seeds alfalfa in late summer following a wheat crop.
"Alfalfa," he says, "germinates better when the weather is warmer, so we get a thicker, healthier stand."
On dryland, Stearns seeds 16 lbs/acre; Kelliher, 18 lbs. On irrigated fields, he seeds up to 25 lbs/acre.
"We get an extra 1.5 to 2 tons per year from the heavier seeding rate," he states. "It only takes an extra half a ton of hay to pay for the additional seed, so it's well worth it."
Kelliher plows and disks fields before seeding. He packs the soil twice and then seeds twice.
That's right. To get a more uniform stand, he puts half the seeding rate on in the first pass, then makes a second pass at an angle to the first to put on the remaining seed.
Both growers believe that feeding the alfalfa stand properly may be the most important factor in pushing up yields.
Three years ago, Stearns began a program on his dryland alfalfa that some call non-traditional. Kelliher tried the same program last year on some of his irrigated land.
Both are working with Ron Johanson, a North Platte crop advisor, who suggested the new program as a way to help them increase yields.
Johanson's recommended program replaces traditional dry fertilizer topdressing with a total liquid program.
"We combine three products to feed the plants and help manage the available soil moisture," says Johanson.
Crop nutrition comes from two liquid fertilizers. The first contains food-grade phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, refined calcium and other nutrients. The second is a mix of micronutrients specifically for hay. Both are made by CSA Inc., Bentonville, AR.
The third part of the program is a soil surfactant from the Wilbur-Ellis Co. It reportedly reduces surface tension between water molecules, allowing water to soak into the soil rather than run off.
These products are applied at greenup and after each cutting as soon as regrowth begins.
Jack Cecil, superintendent of the University of Wyoming Torrington Research and Extension Station, had several replicated plots using a similar fertilizer program on irrigated alfalfa in 1998. While yields didn't make it to 10 tons, they increased by nearly 22%.
"Yields from the treated plots were higher for every cutting, but the biggest difference came with the second crop," says Cecil. "We had a long period of hot, dry weather that coincided with the growth of the second crop, and it seemed to have hurt the control plots more than the treated plots.
"While we can't pinpoint the exact reason for the yield difference, it's important to note that the control plots received no additional fertilizer," he says. "The soil tested high in phosphate and potash. When that's the case, the common practice in this area is to forego topdressing.
"I think we can conclude that some additional fertilizer may be a good idea, even when soil tests suggest it may not be required," Cecil states.