Alfalfa and Alfalfa Seed Production on the Small Farm
by Bushrod James
The need for alfalfa (or other legume hay) becomes obvious to any farmer who is intent on lowering his input costs while maintaining maximum production from his land and livestock. Yet often overlooked is the opportunity to produce a valuable seed crop as an alternative cash crop. Production of alfalfa for forage and for seed go hand in hand and is easily accomplished on the small farm.
Two generations ago every self-respecting farmer had alfalfa or some similar legume in his crop rotation. The need was critical and manyfold: 1) for his livestock no better hay could be had, 2) it allowed him to put nitrogen back into the soil and rebuild depleted ground and 3) it allowed him to productively utilize marginal sloping land unsuited for row crops. But sadly the advent of cheap chemical fertilizers has promoted continuous monocropping and in many areas of the country alfalfa has taken a back seat. With monocropping, however, comes unforeseen problems, including 1) depletion of organic matter, 2) destruction of soil tilth, 3) dramatic increases in soil erosion, 4) poor quality feeds generating poor quality foods for both animals and humans.
With each passing year the pitfalls of modern agri-biz methods become more apparent and intelligent farmers are turning to more traditional ways. Many farmers are discovering there is a place for alfalfa and crop rotation on their farms.
Alfalfa as a feed for livestock is second to none, although different types of livestock use it in varying amounts. I’ve found it to be a superior feed for dairy animals, and traditionally its benefits are most widely accepted in the dairy industry. Goats literally thrive on it. It is the one hay that milking goats rarely ever get tired of -and good quality hay will just about eliminate sickness in the herd. The same is true, naturally, for dairy cattle. As for horses, the finest, leafiest alfalfa grown on the high plains goes to the horse tracks and training areas of the south as well as the ranching areas of the south and southwest. Although horses do well on other types of hay (prairie grass in particular), all race and cutting horses receive some alfalfa to keep their bones and blood mineralized and calcified.
How does a small farmer establish a stand of alfalfa? In a four or five crop rotation alfalfa can easily be sown into an existing stand of grain. For instance, if wheat is drilled in the fall (as it is here in Kansas), the alfalfa (or clover) is usually broadcast in late February or March while the wheat is just beginning to green up from winter dormancy. A Cyclone or similar hand broadcast seeder works well for the task, and several acres can be easily covered in one day. The best approach is to broadcast onto a covering of snow; as the snow melts it carries the seed into the upper crust of soil, while at the same time saturating and softening the seed. Broadcast about 12-15 lbs. per acre, depending on the germination and soil condition. As the wheat grows to maturity, the alfalfa is shaded out but after the grain is harvested the alfalfa has access to full sunlight and begins to develop.
Alfalfa can also be drilled with a grass or disc drill, and in some areas special alfalfa drills are popular. Spring seeding gives the alfalfa more consistent moisture to rely on, but weeds tend to be more of a problem. For that reason, spring drilling is often done in combination with oats as a nurse crop. Dates for spring seeding run from about April 1 to June 1 here in the plains and mid west. Fall seeding is also practiced here but is generally a little more chancey due to uneven moisture patterns. Providing adequate soil moisture is available, however, fall is an excellent time to drill. In this area August 15 is the target date, as old timers claim the new plants should have a dozen leaves before the killing frost.
The primary aspect of establishing a good stand is this: the soil-seedbed must be firm. Alfalfa will not establish in a loose and fluffy seedbed or one that is spongy with lots of organic trash. Thoroughly incorporate all organic trash and then let the ground settle. Old timers in this area usually pulled a roller packer ahead of the drill to firm up the soil; however, one rarely sees a packer in use any more. Otherwise, a good way to drill is to drill half the seed for a particular field going north-south, then drill the other half the seed going perpendicular to the first drilling. Be careful to set the drill accordingly, allowing only half the desired amount per acre to run out each direction. Whether pulling the drill with horses or tractor the result will be the same – to firm up the soil and stomp out all air pockets. This is one time you don’t have to worry about soil compaction! That small seed needs very little soil over it, ¼” to ½” is plenty, and when that little tap root starts down it wants to feel earth all the way. You appreciate the power of alfalfa roots to penetrate hard ground when you realize that a mature plant’s root may be as much as 10-20 feet into the subsoil. That is the primary reason alfalfa is such a mineral dense feed, and ultimately superior to any man-made device for breaking up hard pan soils.
Spring seeded alfalfa will provide ample growth for a light cutting or two by summer’s end, although a sufficient stand should be left in the fall for the plant to store energy before winter. The following summer the hay production should begin in earnest. Should you fertilize alfalfa? Many people do not, although as with any crop the proper fertilizer will enhance growth. Alfalfa is primarily a calcium user and without sufficient stores of calcium you won’t produce fine quality hay. The recommended pH is in the 6.5-7 range, and I know many areas of highly acidic soil cannot establish a decent alfalfa stand. Heavy applications of high calcium lime will help it establish in acidic soils, but have both the soil and lime tested. Dolomite lime is not high calcium and can create many problems that aren’t expected. Indigenous plants, such as red clover in the South, may help to alleviate the problem. Yields in this area are expected to run 3 tons or more per acre per season, but yields can be increased by adding composted manure, fish-seaweed base foliar sprays, humates, and calcium. Caution should be exerted before applying raw manure to keep weeds from taking over the stand.
Needless to say, the best hay is made when the sun is hot and bright. Most try to cut at 10% bloom, but a little more or less is nothing to worry about. More to worry about is the condition of the hay after it hits the ground – the hay should be treated carefully to maximize nutritive value and minimize leaf loss. Alfalfa to be used on the farm can be gathered loose by a dump rake or farmhand, often after one day of drying. Much of the hay baled in this area is baled at night after it is allowed to air dry for 3-5 days, depending on daytime temperatures and humidity, of course. Hay preserved in this fashion will rarely mold and is bright and green with leaves intact. The moisture the hay picks up at night is just enough to make the leaves stick and very compact, leafy bales are the result. An old saying is this: “The moisture without won’t hurt you, but the moisture within will.” In other words, make sure the stems are completely dry before you bale, for they are the ones that determine whether the bale will heat and mold.
A cash crop opportunity exists with the production of alfalfa seed. Alfalfa seed prices are supported by a constant demand by commercial buyers who clean and buy the seed for resale across the country. The new Farm Bill will encourage the use of alfalfa seed, too, as farmers will be taking highly edible acres out of production in favor of perennial grasses and legumes. And another burgeoning market for the seed is the health food industry. Alfalfa seed is the “Queen of Sprouts” and has a permanent place in every salad bar across America. Alfalfa that meets organic certification standards brings a premium price providing the germination is in the 90% range and it is very clean (no dirt or noxious weed seed).
The production of alfalfa seed begins after the first or second cutting of hay has taken place. In this area we take a second cutting of hay about July 1 and still have time to make a seed crop before frost. The first step is to just leave the alfalfa alone and let it bloom. Bring in some bee colonies if you can, or notify a beekeeper that you are offering unsprayed acres for his use. Most beekeepers will oblige you if they can, as alfalfa bloom makes excellent bee pasture and honey. Nature will provide pollination if you don’t in the form of wind, moths, wild bees and various other wasps and insects. After the bloom (a beautiful purple flower) of about 3 – 4 weeks duration, the pods begin to form and within the pod forms the seed.
After the pods turn black and begin to dry and get tough the seed is ready for harvest. This will take place about 3 – 4 weeks after the bloom. The seed can be harvested either standing or windrowed. If harvested standing it is combined directly in the field as one would combine wheat or oats. This method is not employed as often as the windrow method, because when windrowed, the pods get very dry and the seed thrashes out much easier. To make the windrow I use a draper-type swather that cuts and swaths the alfalfa with minimal shattering or damage to the seed. I’ve used an Allis-Chalmers All-Crop pull-type combine with a five-foot pickup header to thrash out the seed. Although the draper swather isn’t a very common piece of machinery, the All-Crop combine is quite common in most rural areas, and can usually be purchased for very little money owing to its obsolete nature. I also think a person could cut the alfalfa with a sickle mower, windrow and stack with a dump rake or farmhand, then feed it into a combine or thrasher by hand at a stationary position, in the manner in which grains were thrashed on the farm years ago. Before drydown, the seed pods are quite tough and can tolerate a fair amount of rough handling without any great seed loss.
Yields for seed production can vary. The most I’ve seen on unirrigated land is about 5 bushels/acre with the average being 2 – 3 bushels/acre. But at 60 lbs./bushel, and an average of $1.00/lb., you can start to see the potential – that’s $120 – 180/acre plus the value of your hay crop. Seed sold to natural food companies can bring as much as $1.25 – $1.50/lb., depending on the market, although that seed must be cleaned to 99+% purity. Cleaning and bagging costs can run as high as $6 – $8/bushel on seed intended for food channels. A good farmstead cleaner will clean the seed up to 97% purity, but to 99+% a velvet roll is necessary to remove all but a few unwanted weed seeds. The fine, hair-like cilia present on most weed seeds attach to the velvet roll, while the smooth and hard alfalfa slides on across without adhering, thereby providing a differential to separate out all but a few weed seeds. If you get seed and do not have a cleaner, start by asking at your local seed and feed supply store, or rural grain elevator. Many have cleaning facilities or at least know of one who will clean for you.
Finishing and marketing are very important steps for the small farmer. Commercial seed brokers will pay $.50 – .75 for 97% pure seed unbagged, while you can sell it yourself bagged for $1.00 – 1.25/lb., or even on up to $1.50/lb. super-cleaned and bagged. You can readily see the difference in return that a little extra time and care can bring. And this holds true for all products produced on the small farm. To dump your products into the commercial channels along with all other American farm production is a quick way to death. The small farmer must produce something a little out of the ordinary and take a few extra pains in finishing and marketing to ensure maximum price. Alfalfa hay and seed produced for a special market both lend themselves well to this approach – and can bring a maximum return for the small farmer.