Jesse Bitler has some tough decisions to make about the alfalfa acres on his dairy farm in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania.
Persistent wet weather has been washing away the benefits of this valuable forage crop.
“If spraying alfalfa with fungicide becomes normal, I’ll probably walk away from it,” Bitler said.
Alfalfa is a staple for the dairy industry, but some farms are turning away from the legume as record rainfall over the last two years has made it not only difficult to grow, but even harder to maintain.
Winter kill is an issue after a wet winter with little snow cover. Disease pressure intensified by excess moisture is also a factor. Combined with sulfur deficiency in the soil, it’s a tough time to grow alfalfa.
And then there’s economics.
Keith Daly, of Nutrien Ag Solutions in Bloomsburg, said that as the dairy market declines, so will the number of alfalfa acres.
“The need for alfalfa is slim to none with fewer dairy cows. A lot of farmers are letting the alfalfa peter out because it is more expensive to grow,” he said. “Alfalfa is worth the extra effort for the feed value, but you have to put the nutrients to it.”
But with uncertain weather conditions, realizing a return on the investment that goes into growing alfalfa is a risk.
While boron and potash fertilizers have long been key for alfalfa, Daly said sulfur supplements are becoming more important.
Regulations on industry and automobile emissions have resulted in cleaner air, which mean less sulfur is being deposited into the soil when it rains.
In addition, the seemingly constant precipitation has reduced the amount of available sulfur in the ground.
“Sulfur is something we have to add to every fertilizer mix,” Daly said.
Still, achieving optimum levels of sulfur is only part of the battle.
Bitler said some of his alfalfa fields have evidence of winter kill, and issues surfaced last year on fields that were soaked but had to be driven on in order to make feed.
As a result, Bitler, who milks 250 cows, said the first cutting of alfalfa this year was subpar, and his second cutting was “looking light.”
“We’re still seeing some yield depression in last year’s seedings, and the older stands are doing worse. There are black spots on the leaves from being too wet,” he said.
That’s why it’s no surprise that Bitler rotated out about half of his older alfalfa seedings this year. Under normal conditions, he only takes out about a quarter of his alfalfa stands each year.
Right now, Bitler said, he’s down to 60 acres of alfalfa, the least he’s ever had, due to the wet weather and corresponding disease issues.
“I’ve never seen anything this bad. When it comes to alfalfa, it’s almost like you’re wasting ground,” he said. “This is a crucial year for alfalfa. I’ll probably continue to take more out.”
So what options does a dairy farmer have if alfalfa becomes too much of a risk?
Mike Kuhns, forage products manager for Chemgro Seeds, said some of the larger dairy operations are turning to triticale and rye as part of their forage program because the cost to establish is less than alfalfa.
But when it comes to keeping some alfalfa in a forage program, Kuhns said grass may be the key.
Chemgro has sold more orchardgrass seed this spring than it has in years, he said.
There are several reasons for the orchardgrass boom.
Many farmers are over-seeding with orchardgrass as a way to extend the life of an alfalfa field. In addition, when planted as a companion grass with alfalfa, orchardgrass reduces winter mortality because it provides cover in the absence of snow.
Still, Kuhns cautioned against any inclination to do away with alfalfa completely.
“I would continue to keep alfalfa as part of the rotation. I recommend mixing orchardgrass or tall fescue with alfalfa. The grasses survive better. If the alfalfa struggles with disease pressure, the forage crop — grass — will still be there,” he said.
Bitler is already incorporating more grasses and small grains into his forage program due to the challenges with alfalfa. As long as he keeps up with the nutrient requirements, Bitler believes it’s possible that grasses and small grains could compensate for alfalfa losses.
“If this continues, we’ll probably make some cropping changes,” he said.
And that’s what makes alfalfa so frustrating right now, Daly said. No one knows how long the wet weather pattern will continue, so how does one know when it’s time to transition away from alfalfa?
“You’ll make more milk on alfalfa than any other crop,” Daly said. “But our weather has been flipped upside down for the last three years, and it’s really impacted alfalfa.
“If you’re cutting every 28 days, putting the nutrients to it, managing for pests and weeds and still can’t make alfalfa work, then perhaps it’s time to consider other forage options.”