John Schaendorf gets paid by the ton, so he likes chopping alfalfa at the Muskegon County Wastewater Management System.
“It yields two or three dry-matter tons per acre more than conventional alfalfa,” says Schaendorf, of Allegan, MI.
He custom harvests the 1,600 acres of alfalfa grown at the county-owned wastewater facility, which also has 1,600 acres of soybeans and 1,800 of corn. He's hired by two nearby 2,800-cow dairies that buy the standing crop.
The alfalfa yields well because it gets plenty of water and other nutrients. The wastewater management system uses land as a living filter to clean sewage water produced in the county, including the city of Muskegon and a large paper mill there.
In addition to the 5,000-plus acres of cropland, the facility has 6,000 acres devoted to aeration and settling ponds, and a 1,700-acre storage lagoon. Tainted water from the lagoon is applied to cropland through 53 center-pivot irrigation rigs.
For farm manager-agronomist Ken Scarth, the challenge is getting 150 acre-inches applied each year without drowning the crops. Rainy years can be difficult.
“The final product here is not meant to be crops, but clean water,” says Scarth. “But we shoot for both.”
When the project started in 1974, neither alfalfa nor soybeans was part of the crop mix. It started with continuous corn.
Michigan State University extension agent Roger Peacock recalls how the continuous watering created cold, wet conditions and depressed corn yields to about 65 bu/acre.
“We encouraged them to rotate,” he says.
It was a good decision.
“Alfalfa removes three times as much phosphorus as corn does, and that's a major nutrient we need to remove,” Scarth says.
Nitrogen levels are low in the wastewater, so corn needs added N. The fact that alfalfa and soybeans fix their own N is a benefit. Nitrogen is hard to manage in sandy soil with that much irrigation, Scarth says.
Alfalfa also seems to tolerate the heavy water application and a rigorous cutting schedule.
“We cut in the early bud stage and very seldom see blossoms, but we get five years out of most stands,” he says. “But there's no question that we get lodging and some crop damage from overwatering.”
Alfalfa doesn't like standing water, but as long as the soil is well-drained, the crop can thrive with large amounts of irrigation water.
“The soils we're growing hay on have a water uptake rate of more than 10” per hour,” says Scarth. “Some irrigation rigs are nozzled for more than 2,800 gallons per minute and there is essentially no runoff.”
Hay harvest operations haven't greatly interfered with water application, and that's important. Hay is cut, chopped and removed in two or three days.
“We shoot for five cuttings,” reports Scarth. “We cut the last week of every month starting in May. We don't cut in September, and we take a final cut after frost in October.”
Having the equipment and manpower to harvest the 100-acre fields quickly is essential, he says.
“We can't afford to let the irrigation rigs stand for long periods waiting for the hay to dry. We have to get rid of the water.”
That's where Schaendorf comes in. A 700-cow dairyman himself, he's been a custom chopper since 1989. And he's chopped forage at the wastewater treatment facility for the last seven years, working for the two dairies.
He has 35 employees and runs six choppers, 25 trucks, three mowers, two windrow mergers and four packing tractors.
“On our best day so far, we put up 2,830 tons of haylage in 12 hours and 10 minutes and bagged every ounce of it,” Schaendorf points out.