Dairies spur alfalfa production

By Leonard Lauriault: Ag Sense

Alfalfa acreage continues to increase in the Texas counties west of I-27 and Curry and Roosevelt counties despite the declining availability of water for irrigation in the region. This increase is directly related to an increase in the number of dairies in the area.

Although alfalfa may not produce as much tonnage per acre with the same amount of water as some other forages, such as corn and sorghum, it does produce the greatest forage value with regard to yield and quality for dairy cattle.

Alfalfa has many other attributes that make it a desirable crop in this geographic area.

First, as a long-lived perennial, remaining productive for seven or more years with good management, alfalfa doesn’t require tillage and replanting every year.
Second, alfalfa is efficient at harvesting soil moisture and nutrients because it’s deeply rooted.

Third, because of its deep root system, alfalfa tolerates drought well, also using dormancy to avoid severe moisture stress. Alfalfa can recover after long-term irrigation termination, maintaining ground cover and protecting the soil if irrigation water is needed for other crops.

With all its attributes, there are still some considerations for producers interested in planting alfalfa. Most importantly, spring is not the best time to plant because it leads to reduced first-year yields, increased likelihood of wind erosion during land preparation, increased weed pressure affecting stand establishment that requires costly control, and higher irrigation requirements for establishment and first summer survival.

Planting in mid-August to late September, depending on location, overcomes many problems and gives prospective alfalfa growers the opportunity to begin with the most critical step in establishing alfalfa: variety selection.

The 2006 New Mexico Alfalfa Variety Test Report provides alfalfa variety selection guidelines regarding fall dormancy category, pests and yield. It is available through county Cooperative Extension Service offices.

It is important to make variety selections and order seed now to assure its availability at planting time. Should you decide to purchase cheaper, untreated seed, look at the germination and hard (or dormant) seed percentages. Alfalfa seed should have a germination of 85 percent or better, with little dormant seed.
There is no demonstrated advantage to planting dormant seed.

Information about alfalfa establishment or management is available at county Cooperative Extension Service offices.

Information about drought management of alfalfa is available from county Cooperative Extension Service offices and online at http://cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/_circulars/CR-581.pdf/

Leonard Lauriault is forage agronomist at the New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari. He can be reached by calling 461-1620 or e-mail at lmlaur@nmsu.edu