FOCUS ON AGRI-BUSINESS: Raising alfalfa commercially has its pluses and minuses

Those lush green expanses of summertime alfalfa that don’t have to be replanted every year and current prices approaching $100 a ton for “dairy quality” alfalfa hay may make alfalfa seem a tempting crop to grow.

But commercial alfalfa producers offer a word of warning: To do quality work, you’ll have to live with the alfalfa 24 hours a day or have someone to share in the time.

Rollind Bartel, who forms northeast of Hillsboro, shares time by specializing in swathing hay on his own place and custom swathing for others while someone else custom bales his hay.

Randy Svitak at Pilsen shares time by being in partnership with his sons, Shane and Damien, with Shane “ramrodding” the operation. Shane does most of the baling.

Neither man viewed himself as “a standout” in what he is doing, but took the view that alfalfa is just one more way for a farmer to put an operation together to survive.

“There’s a lot of luck involved,” Bartel said. “We’re shooting for dairy hay, but we don’t always get it. It depends on the weather, when it was cut, the time of night its baled so the leaf is retained .”

Higher leaf content means higher protein.

Svitak said: “Demand is good for dairy hay, but if it’s been rained on or it’s grassy or weedy, you have feedlot hay. The first cutting is best. We might end up a year with 50 percent dairy hay if we’re lucky. Most alfalfa around here is feedlot hay.”

Bartel said dairy hay is $90 to $100 a ton right now, but a producer is going to take a $20 to $25 or $30 cut for poorer hay.

“Grinding hay is up to $70 right now when it was only $40 last year,” he said. “Most of that goes to the guys backgrounding cattle in Western Kansas. They’re short on it right now. Most of the time we produce grinding hay here, it goes out there.”

The dry year in Kansas affected the hay market. But Steve Tonn, Marion County agricultural extension agent, said supply and demand across the United States affects the cash market for alfalfa, usually acting independently of how cattle prices are fairing.

Svitak and Bartel both ship alfalfa out of this part of the country.

“Most of our dairy quality hay gets shipped very far away, 1,000 to 1,500 miles away to where the dairies are getting way bigger, ‘Svitak said. “This year we’ve shipped to the Carolinas, Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, Illinois and even to the eastern states. We’ve shipped clear to Maine. It’s all hauled out on backhauls. Brokers out of different states find the trucks.”

Bartel ships hay out as close as Eastern Kansas and Missouri to as far away as Kentucky and Texas using local truckers.

Both men have gone to large square bales because they are easier for them and customers to stack and handle.

Bartel uses a four-by-four one-ton bale. He likes to be able to bore into the middle of a bale for a quality sample test to tell customers what’s there.

Svitak uses three-by-three-by-eight 1,000-pound bales.

The two farmers use new commercial varieties or “hybrids” of alfalfa on their land.

Tonn said the days when most Kansas farmers planted “Kansas common” alfalfa, or bin-run seed cut from Kansas fields appeared to draw to a close in just the last 10 to 12 years.

“The commercial varieties are more expensive, but they’ve increased production,” he said. “They’ve increased resistance to insects and diseases. A farmer can be far more specific in selecting for a resistance.”

Tonn doesn’t see any one alfalfa variety as of yet coming to dominate in the area. Farmers differ in their selections. Any of them average producing about one ton per acre per cutting with the first cutting producing the most. Three to five cuttings should produce four or five tons per acre in a normal year, he said.

Svitak likes a variety he got out of Idaho called Future.

Bartel likes Agri-Pro or Cargill hybrids.

Svitak said yields may increase on better ground than Kansas upland, “like on bottom ground where the roots can really tap down.”

He said on irrigated land in Western Kansas, yields may approach 10 to 12 tons, and heavily manure land in Wisconsin may yield 12-ton averages.

“It actually could be too much,” he said. “It would be like trying to mow your lawn when it’s two feet tall.”

One thing that hasn’t changed recently is the annual infestation of alfalfa weevils that can severely cut production.

“You just have to spray, at least for the first cutting,” Bartel said.

Svitak agreed, but added: “Oh, I suppose you could go out there, and try to stomp on them. We do have to get away from spraying all the time. It’s just not good. I’ve done a lot of reading on the bugs, different natural things you can try to do. You can buy lady bugs in the thousands (to eat weevils). Right now something a lot different will have to come along.”

Bartel and Svitak both treat alfalfa as a cash crop, unlike neighbors who may be feeding alfalfa produced to their own livestock.

Tonn said livestock producers may try grazing animals on alfalfa over the winter to crush stems where weevil eggs are laid to reduce the population being careful to keep the crowns of alfalfa plants from being broken down. He’s also seen stubble removed by burning.

“Right now, there’s just no way to avoid spraying totally,” he said.

Bartel began growing alfalfa on a larger scale five or six years ago. He has 350 acres of alfalfa on 80 percent of his ground.

“I always had some alfalfa, just not this scale,” he said. “It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing. It doesn’t take a lot to beat $2 or $3 wheat.”

Bartel said he also saves fuel because running swathers is more fuel efficient than running heavier equipment, especially when the equipment has to work to turn earth too. When he custom cuts, he also will do some prairie hay and brome hay.

Svitak uses some milo and wheat in rotations, but 500 to 600 acres of alfalfa is always the backbone of the business.

“I always have been buying and selling hay,” he said. “We pretty much just grow it. I used to sell some prairie hay to feedlots, but right now alfalfa hay is the main thing we do.

“It’s hectic. You’re out there day and night trying to bale everything to make sure the leaves stay on it. You have to live in the field. It’s not always fun. You have to be there at the exact time it’s ready. It will pay better than grain if you stay in it.

“You’ve got to have sheds or tarps to cover the hay, and pallets under it to keep it dry. It can be very expensive to put up and store.”

Svitak and Bartel stay away from the markets for hay for horses.

Svitak said the liability with horse hay can be high because if something goes wrong with a horse, there’s a tendency for horse owners to come back on hay “producers for big bucks.”

Bartel said blister beetles that can harm horses may be in some cuttings, and it’s usually not worth the time to sort the hay.

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