OK, so you’ve heard that adding perennial forages into an annual crop rotation has benefits, but you want to hear from farmers who actually do this or who might consider it. Two farmers from Western Manitoba share their opinions.
Doug Williamson produces high-quality dairy hay southwest of Brandon, Man. Most of his land is sandy with a high water table. He knows firsthand that alfalfa in rotation with annual crops can help dial-down the nitrogen budget the year following the crop.
“I typically run four or five years of alfalfa, then two crops of oats back to back, then canola underseeded to alfalfa,” he says. “The year following the alfalfa I usually put on 30 or 40 pounds of nitrogen versus 70 (after another crop.)”
He agrees that having the perennial crop in rotation helps out with organic matter levels, however he gets paid for the hay he produces, not for the organic matter in his soil. His critique of the MZTRA trial is that the alfalfa in rotation is too short. “I can keep my alfalfa stands producing to five years, most of the time,” he says. “Three years just means you’re leaving production on the table.” And while alfalfa can put nitrogen back in the soil, Williamson says his soil tests still come back saying he needs 100 pounds of phosphorus on his sandy soil.
Williamson says depending on weeds, such as dandelions, and mole hill infestation levels, he can take three cuts a year for three to four years, then two in the final year or two, depending on the stand. “The trick is to start with as clean a field as you can,” he says. And that means planning weed control the season before establishment at a minimum. “I underseed the alfalfa to a Clearfield canola variety so I can go in with Odyssey that year and clean it up,” he says. He also applies about $25 per acre worth of phosphorus, potassium and sulfur that seems to keep the stand healthy and producing good yields.
Tom Mowbray is an annual cropper at Cartwright, Man. He’d like to include alfalfa in short-term rotation, but has zero interest in buying another set of equipment. “I know that alfalfa will be good for the land and give it a rest from annual crops. It’ll give us a break in our weed and disease cycles and increase organic matter and water infiltration,” he says, “but we need to be sure there is some financial gain in growing the crop. Alfalfa seed isn’t cheap.”
Mowbray’s idea is a sound one. He’d like to grow alfalfa but essentially sell it as a standing hay crop. That way, he can avoid tying up capital in new equipment and it doesn’t significantly change labour demands on the farm. The issue he has is in striking up a fair deal with a local livestock producer.
“We know our gross from annual crops is higher, but we want to figure out what our net profit is (with short-term alfalfa),” Mowbray says. He does believe that if this work with MZTRA can put a dollar figure on the added benefits of water infiltration and others, it will help in determining a fair price for the standing hay. In a year like 2009, where excess water has been an issue, increased water use and infiltration that you get from alfalfa would have been a real boon.
Mowbray hopes to determine a price per pound of alfalfa, recognizing that there may have to be some good faith between neighbours in nailing down what happens in a very poor year. He’s willing to take on the cost of seeding and establishment, as well as taking the crop out of production, however someone else will cut and bale the crop.
“We’d like to start small, maybe 40 or 50 acres, and see how it works,” Mowbray.