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Double-Duty Alfalfa

Before running the ripper through that aging alfalfa, Fred Coon puts pencil to paper and does his math. “For me, it is all about the market,” he says. “Recently, it hasn’t paid me to tear out an alfalfa stand and start over.”

Instead the Ritzville, Washington, ranch owner and hay producer overseeds orchard grass into his thinning stands. 

Coon points out that 20% of the hay he grows is fed directly to the ranch’s beef herd. The remainder is sold into a variety of markets, ranging from premium for dairies to alfalfa orchard grass hay for local feed stores. 

“This year alfalfa hay has dropped to $230 a ton, while the orchard grass/alfalfa blend has stayed solid at $260 a ton,” he says, adding that price per ton is only one of several reasons for choosing to overseed into alfalfa. A timely return on his seeding investment, reduced ground preparation costs, and all the benefits associated with transitioning from a broadleaf to a grass crop are just a few more reasons. 

Safer harvest window

For Coon, one of the real advantages of producing both straight alfalfa and a grass alfalfa hay blend on the same schedule is that it expands his harvest window and adds a layer of protection against unforeseen weather events. 

He cites, as an example, two weeks of unexpected rain that occurred shortly after his first cutting of alfalfa. “If I had all my ground in alfalfa hay, I would have been forced to knock it all down in one week, and it would still have been on the ground when we had those rains,” says Coon. “Because I had both straight alfalfa and blends, which could be cut later, I was able to cut and bale my alfalfa before the rain and leave my blends uncut until the rain passed.” 

Popular in California

Steve Orloff, University of California Extension forage agronomist, is well aware of the practice of overseeding orchard grass into mature alfalfa stands. 

“It is a real common practice in our intermountain region of northern California,” he says. “Growers will overseed in the fifth or sixth year of an alfalfa stand when it is clearly declining.”

Growers who wish to overseed have three options, notes Orloff. “They can seed in the early spring just before the alfalfa breaks dormancy,” he explains. “In that situation, they would harrow once or twice depending on the weed density and then seed the orchard grass.” Another time period for overseeding is in the fall after the last cutting, but that can be problematic, cautions Orloff. “Water can be an issue or weather, if it turns cold before the orchard grass gets established.”

The third option is no-till seeding after the second-to-last cutting. “It works well because the orchard grass can get established, but it’s short enough to pass under the mower in the last cutting,” he says.

Good investment

For growers who want to limit their production costs while extending their stand life, overseeding is clearly a viable option. 

“By making a small investment in seed, you get another three or four years of stand life,” Orloff says. He adds that with the appropriate inputs and as the orchard grass matures, yields on the alfalfa and grass mix should rival the best of those generated by the straight alfalfa. 

“The orchard grass does a good job of filling in all the spaces,” he notes. “That bumps up the yield.”

Orloff points out that the high stand density of the blend also reduces the need for weed-control measures associated with straight alfalfa. “With that nice, thick stand of alfalfa and orchard grass, you usually don’t have to put on a winter dormant herbicide; with straight alfalfa, you do,” he says.  

Cost comparison

While there are numerous reasons for choosing overseeding over stand replacement, both Coon and Orloff agree that, unquestionably, the most persuasive argument for making that decision is cost. 

“Not only are you looking at the outlay to put in a stand but also you’re looking at the loss of production while that stand is establishing itself,” says Coon.

A University of California Cooperative Extension bulletin providing sample costs puts the establishment of an alfalfa stand at approximately $400 per acre depending on the location. “In contrast, we are looking at less than  $100 an acre for overseeding,” says Orloff.

Tips for success

If you are contemplating overseeding orchard grass into a declining alfalfa stand, Orloff offers the following advice. 

  • Select appropriate seed. “In our region, we prefer late-maturing orchard grass varieties,” he says. “That’s because with an early variety, the orchard grass maturity can get ahead of the alfalfa.”
  • Maximize yields in the blend. “You should understand that the alfalfa, because it is still living, does not contribute much additional fertility to the orchard grass,” he says. “If you want to optimize your yields, you will have to add nitrogen.”

How much nitrogen is always the issue, continues Orloff. “That will all depend on the ratio of alfalfa to orchard grass,” he notes. 

In his region, growers typically apply 120 pounds of nitrogen after the first cutting, then apply 60 pounds after each subsequent cutting.

  • Harvest with care. Coon advises raising the mower height to avoid damaging the orchard grass. “You need to cut above the orchard grass crowns,” he explains. “That means raising your mower 1 inch to 2 inches higher.”
  • Modify your criteria. Finally, Orloff stresses that you should consider modifying your criteria for baling when shifting from straight alfalfa to an alfalfa/orchard grass blend. 

“Because leaf shatter is not much of an issue with the blend as it is with straight alfalfa and because of the fact that with a grass in the mix there is more moisture retained in the wind rows, you should consider baling later in the day than you would with just alfalfa,” Orloff suggests.

To learn more, contact Steve Orloff, University of California Cooperative Extension at 530-598-0670 or email at sborloff@ucanr.edu

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