When considering alfalfa seed choices, what should you look for? Good insect, disease and weed control are givens. But don't forget about other factors that can affect yield potential, such as soil type, soil fertility, cutting schedule and your overall management system. Here are some tips to help you make the best alfalfa decisions for your farm.
These recommendations come from Forage Genetics International, the world's largest producer and processor of alfalfa seed. Headquartered in Nampa, Idaho, FGI's locations span the globe with more than 40 research, testing and production facilities in the United States alone. Learn more at www.foragegenetics.com.
Soil fertility levels need to be met prior to seeding alfalfa
Before a seed is even planted, it's critical to understand how alfalfa fits into a cropping system, and to work with an agronomist who knows alfalfa fertility, weed and insect control, and cutting management.
• Put fertility first. "Alfalfa is a foundation crop," says Jeremy Hayward, brand manager for W-L Research. "Before planting alfalfa, baseline fertility needs to be achieved. Alfalfa is not a crop you can plant, then catch up on pH, potassium and phosphorous. Appropriate soil fertility levels need to be met prior to planting. Working with an agronomist who understands overall alfalfa management is important, even before selecting seed."
• Choose the right fall dormancy rating. In Iowa, most growers would probably choose an alfalfa variety with a fall dormancy rating of 4 or 5, though growers in the far northern part of the state may be able to plant seeds with a 3 rating, says Brent Johnson, channel manager for FGI.
Plan your harvest schedule, number of cuttings per year
"Consider your harvest goals and targets—one would be the number of cuts in a given year; another would be the number of days between cuts," says Johnson. "If you are pushing for, say, five cuttings, or trying to harvest every 26 to 28 days, consider going with the highest fall dormancy number for your region."
• Manage potato leafhopper. If you are not aggressively scouting and spraying for potato leafhopper, planting an alfalfa variety with high leafhopper resistance is key.
"Particularly for Iowa growers who might grow their hay with grass, leafhopper can be masked in stands, or damage blamed on sulfur deficiency, or perhaps drought," says Hayward. "But there's usually going to be a level of leafhopper presence every year, so it's wise to plant varieties with that 'insurance policy.'"
Seed treatment helps give alfalfa stand a better start
Serious alfalfa seedling diseases such as phytopthora root rot and aphanomyces root rot (race 1 and race 2) can be alleviated by planting appropriately treated seed.
• Plant right seed with right treatment. "Historically, alfalfa mortality rates tend to be fairly high compared to row crops," says Johnson. "That's due to a number of factors, including seedbed preparation, seed placement and seed-to-soil contact. One area where growers can give themselves a better chance of establishing a successful stand is to give their alfalfa plants a better start. That's why so many companies are offering treated seed intended to enhance seedling survivability within the first 60 days."
Most seed treatments contain a base fungicide and an inoculant with a high rhizobia count, says Hayward. W-L uses products such as the Optimize Gold Plus growth promoters in its Genuity Roundup Ready and conventional alfalfa varieties to help promote seedling vigor and quicker stand establishment, as well as Stamina fungicides for additional phytopthora and aphanomyces root rot resistance.
It can also be advantageous to use next-generation seed traits. For example, in FGI trials, the newest alfalfa varieties with the Genuity Roundup Ready trait are showing up to a 6% yield increase over first-generation Genuity Roundup Ready alfalfa, says Johnson.
Choose variety to plant that fits your location, field situation
With overall production costs climbing every year, growers may be looking for ways to cut expenses. Purchasing older-generation, less-expensive seed is one way, but those short-term input savings may come at the cost of long-term profitability.
• Go for quality. "Make decisions based on yield and quality data, using comparable varieties to compare to in terms of relative forage quality or RFQ, fiber digestibility, crude protein levels, etc.," says Hayward. "Today, in some areas, cash hay is at or near record high pricing. Any difference in price between a higher- and lower-cost alfalfa seed is going to be paid for in about one cutting with additional yield and quality."
Hayward adds, "You're going to have these alfalfa stands for multiple years and multiple cuttings. Seed cost is something growers weigh with many crops, but with alfalfa, considering the price of cash hay, it's not a contest to purchase the higher-quality product."