Organically grown alfalfa offers opportunities
The growth of the organic livestock-production industry has generated interest in raising organic alfalfa, says a University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.
Alfalfa is one of the most productive forage crops in terms of tons of high-quality feed produced per acre in Missouri, Rob Kallenbach told participants at a recent MU advanced nutrient management planning course.
“Both milk and meat animals that are produced organically could benefit from having alfalfa as part of their diet,” he said. However, to meet organic production requirements the alfalfa itself must be produced using organic production methods.
From an economic standpoint, the biggest reason to consider organic alfalfa production would be having a contract with someone who needs organic alfalfa and is willing to pay a premium for it, said Kallenbach, who is also a professor of plant sciences in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
“Right now, conventionally produced alfalfa is marketing between $250 and $350 per ton,” he said.
“Organic production typically exceeds that by 20 to 50 percent, depending on location and the need for the product.”
Organic alfalfa does present some challenges compared with conventionally produced alfalfa. One is pest control, which Kallenbach says requires strong cultural practices and managerial schemes to succeed. Another is nutrient requirements.
“We can’t call the fertilizer truck when we’re producing organic alfalfa,” Kallenbach said. “We have to rely on animal manures to supply the phosphorus and potassium necessary to produce that crop. Even at modest yield goals, alfalfa requires 90 pounds of phosphate and 250 to 300 pounds of potash per acre annually. Getting all of that from manure can be a challenge.”
Alfalfa can be planted either in April or early September, but for organic production Kallenbach recommends planting in the fall.
“Weed control is easier for alfalfa planted in the fall,” he said. “Weeds that may germinate in autumn are typically killed by winter weather. So we come into spring with fewer weeds to deal with, whereas when we try to establish in spring we have a much longer period where we have to try and control weeds.”
Producers can choose from more than 300 varieties of alfalfa on the market. Kallenbach recommends choosing a dormancy class based on location within the state and then look at varieties that are highly resistant to potato leafhopper and Phytophthora rot. He also stresses the need to establish alfalfa in well-drained areas.
“Alfalfa handles wet soil conditions poorly,” he said. “On well-drained fields, alfalfa stands can last more than five years. On poorly drained sites, alfalfa lasts about two years. Selecting a site that has good internal drainage as well as good surface drainage is one of the keys to producing alfalfa successfully.”
To establish and maintain a strong stand of alfalfa, lime the field six months before planting and every two to four years after it is established, Kallenbach said. He also recommends cutting alfalfa no more than four or five times a year. More frequent harvesting can lead to weaker stands and greater pest problems.