Considering the economic importance of forages, alfalfa seed decisions should be looked at differently. As producers and their advisors meet in the conference room (or kitchen), the conversation should explore side-by-side comparisons and stress income per acre.
By Chad Staudinger
The economic impact of alfalfa seed decisions is overlooked, as the focus continually leads to corn variety selection. Alfalfa seed decisions should be looked at differently, especially when a large variation in product price and performance exists. This large variation in performance may present a considerable opportunity to increase income per acre for dairy operations. Here are some questions to discuss with your agronomist to ensure these opportunities are being explored.
1) How do I know if alfalfa yield differences exist on my farm?
Differences in the genetic yield potential of alfalfa varieties are sometimes overlooked because, unlike corn, they often cannot be visually observed in the field. The only method to truly measure alfalfa yield performance is to weigh the harvested material coming from each field. Side-by-side comparisons are also great, but do require measuring the weight of each variety and accounting for moisture differences to get an accurate record of the dry matter harvested per acre.
Ask your agronomist if you should be doing a side-by-side comparison on your farm.
2) How much yield variation exists between alfalfa varieties?
When looking at the largest datasets available from Dairyland Seed, leading varieties from various companies with more than 70 reps of data can vary by more than 12% in forage yield. When looking at the difference between the best and worst variety in one field, however, the differences can be much greater. Using four years of data from the University of Wisconsin alfalfa variety trials, the average annual difference in yield between the best and worst variety was 21.2% for full production years. Considering an average on farm yield of 5 dry tons/acre in full production years, this amounts to a yield difference of 1.06 dry tons/acre per year.
Ask your agronomist to review university or third-party data from your area.
3) What does a yield difference of 1 dry ton/acre mean economically?
In order to apply economics to this concept, you must be aware of the alfalfa market in your area. Let’s consider the value of alfalfa to be $100/dry ton. This means a yield difference of 1 ton equals $100 annually. If a stand lasts 3 or 4 years, this adds up to an impressive $300 to $400/acre over the life of the stand. If a bag of alfalfa seed can plant 2.5 acres, this adds up to $750 to $1,000/bag of alfalfa seed. Even a 5% increase in yield, or .25 tons/year, can increase your return by $100/acre, or $250/seed bag in 4 years.
Ask your agronomist about the economic impact of varietal decisions.
4) Other than yield, what factors should help me decide which variety is right for my operation?
• Disease Resistance. Look for a DRI (Disease Resistance Index) score close to 30. Make sure the variety shows resistance to all major diseases in your area. Common diseases in the Midwest include Anthracnose, Aphanomyces, Bacterial Wilt, Fusarium Wilt, Phytophthora Root Rot, and Verticillium Wilt.
• Persistence and Winter Survival. Look for varieties that excel in wheel traffic tolerance, spring green-up, recovery after cutting, and drought stress. If you are in the northern U.S., pay particular attention to winter survival ratings and choose a variety with a WS rating of 2 or under.
• Forage Quality. Choose varieties that produce dense, fine stemmed alfalfa stands. This will help ensure your variety has high potential for producing quality forage. The best way to control the quality of your alfalfa forage is to know the maturity of your variety and to intensively manage your cutting schedule around it.
• Value-Added Technology and Traits. Look for options that can increase income per acre in your operation. Choose technology that increases yield, such as hybrid alfalfa or traits that might help protect yield, such as herbicide resistance or pest resistance. Quality traits are in the pipeline such as low-lignin and increased tannin expression that may have a significant impact on forage quality in the future.
Ask your agronomist about the potential for technology or traits in alfalfa to increase your profitability.
5) What about price?
Alfalfa seed prices typically range from $2.00/lb to $7.50/lb. Considering this price range and a seeding rate of 20 lbs/acre, your seed input cost per acre can range from $40.00 to $150.00. However, when comparing the $2.00/lb to the $7.50/lb alfalfa, if the higher priced alfalfa yields 1 ton more per acre, the extra cost of the seed is recovered in the first full production year. Remember that your decision will affect you for 3 to 4 years.
Discuss the importance of value and price with your agronomist before making your alfalfa seed decision.
■ Chad Staudinger is Forage Product Manager, Dairyland Seed Company Inc. Contact him via phone: 608-220-9249; or e-mail: email@example.com.