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Some good ol’ reminders about diversification

No crazy ideas about what to do with alfalfa and barley

I must admit I haven’t heard much about farm “diversification” in recent years. And maybe that just means everyone these days is already diversified to the max so there is no need to talk about it.

I think back 15 or 20 years and there were many actively promoted diversification schemes (and some of them were definitely schemes). If you were producing crops, perhaps you should consider some exotic livestock opportunities. Bison, elk, deer, reindeer, wild boar, llamas, alpacas, ostriches, meat goats, flying squirrels, hedgehogs and even pigeons were among the money-making alternative livestock ventures touted to have great potential.

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And they weren’t all schemes or scams, by any means. After initial breeder hype some levelled off to become quite successful business opportunities for good managers.

Unfortunately, I can even go back 40 some years when some of the first continental beef breeds were being introduced to Canada. That was a different type of diversification. There were some crazy prices paid in the 1970s for fresh-off-the-boat Simmental, Charolais, Gelbvieh and Limousin bulls. I know not all of the early investors survived those prices, but yet the introduction of the breeds did, and they have well established themselves as a valuable part of the North American livestock industry.

I don’t recall any real crazy crop diversification ideas. Instead of just wheat and barley farmers were urged to consider adding oilseeds and pulse crops to rotations. Most have grasped that concept quite well. There was some promotion of specialty crops such as herbs and spices, fruit and berry crops such as saskatoon orchards, and there have long been niche markets for some of the ancient grains such as spelt, millet and quinoa to name a few.

So at the FarmTech Conference in Edmonton in late January, I was on a fairly comfortable learning curve when two presenters talked about diversification opportunities that included alfalfa hay (for export) and malt barley.

Neither are new, by any means, but the diversification message is worth repeating just in case producers are looking to extend crop rotations.

Alfalfa hay

Ed Shaw with Barr-Ag Ltd. of Olds, Alta., described some of the opportunities for alfalfa hay exports. Barr-Ag Ltd. (www.barr-ag.com) describes itself as “Canada’s leading exporter” of timothy hay, non-GMO alfalfa hay and mixed hay. Along with forage crops, they also buy and export many grains, oilseeds and pulse crops.

Shaw’s message: there always is demand for good quality, nice, green, non-GMO, properly dried alfalfa hay. It’s a crop with a good five-year fit in your cropping rotation, and it’s good for your soil. If you can get it baled at about 12 per cent moisture it is worth about $250 to $275 per tonne at the farm gate.

Shaw says there are also different contracting opportunities for alfalfa hay:

  • The farmer can grow it and bale it;
  • The farmer can grow and buyer will come in and harvest it; or,
  • The farmer rents out the land a contractor grows it and harvests it.

One new-to-me feature Shaw talked about: you can grow the hay but it can be tough fighting the weather to get it baled dry enough for storage — well, call in a contractor with a bale dryer. Apparently these bale dryer units (there are a few out there) are available to buy or hire on a custom basis. A fully self-contained, portable unit will cost about $450,000.

They have 400 HP engines, forcing heated air into spikes that go into large rectangular bales, and they can pull about 10 per cent or more moisture out of a bale in 12 to 24 minutes. One operator processed about 200 of the big bales in a day. So becoming a contractor who goes bale drying may be another diversification plan.

Malt barley

Scott Keller, who farms in the Camrose, Alta. area says malt barley is the most profitable crop on their farm after canola. But he says it needs to be treated more like a speciality crop, rather than an afterthought in rotation. He suggests growers line up production contracts with malting companies and grow a variety the maltsters prefer.

Seed early, he recommends, ideally right after pulse crops and apply proper fertility. While some recommendations for seeding rates are quite high, he seeds at a rate that produces about 25 plants per square foot. For fertility, he doesn’t overdo nitrogen to reduce the risk of crop lodging. On average, he aims for about 75 pounds of nitrogen total (if a soil test shows there is about 20 pounds of N in the soil, Keller adds about 55 pounds at seeding). He says he may lose about 20 per cent yield with lower nitrogen, but at least the crop isn’t going to go flat on the ground — lower yield, but he protects quality. The crop also needs about 40 to 50 pounds of phosphorus.

Keller likes to seed malt barley on pulse crop stubble. He recommends use of in-crop fungicide to protect yield and quality. If seeded in a timely manner, he can usually harvest a 100-bushel per acre crop in August.

He said it would be great if plant growth regulators (PGRs) could be used on malt barley. He could apply more nitrogen and perhaps achieve 110 to 120 bushel/acre yields. PGRs can be used on barley grown for livestock feed, but not on crops headed to the brewing industry.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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