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Double-Duty Alfalfa

04/08/2014 @ 2:06pm

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. 

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