Posts Tagged: alfalfa
Because periodic droughts will always be a part of life in California, the UC California Institute for Water Resources (CIWR) produced a series of videos to maintain drought awareness and planning, even in years when water is more abundant.
The final video of the three-part series, which focuses on drought strategies for citrus, was launched April 6 on the UCTV Sustainable California channel. The first episode, which centered on alfalfa production, premiered Feb. 2 on the UCTV Sustainable California channel. The second video, on almonds, was launched March 2 on Sustainable California. A trailer with clips from all three episodes is here.
The videos are inspired by a collection of 19 drought tips produced by CIWR in collaboration with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researchers during the drought of 2010-16. The tips cover a broad spectrum of California crops, from alfalfa to walnuts. Topics also include salt management, use of graywater in urban landscapes, and the use of shallow groundwater for crop production.
The drought tips collection and the drought tip videos were sponsored by the California Department of Water Resources. Following are links to each of the videos:
The CIWR drought tip series opens with Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming in Los Banos. The alfalfa grower works with UCCE specialist Dan Putnam. “There's a lot of misunderstanding about alfalfa as a crop,” Michael said. “It does take water to grow it, as with anything, but you get multiple harvests of it every year.”
The second episode features almond producer Raj of Meena farms. He works with David Doll, UCCE advisor in Merced County. “One positive of this drought,” Meena said, “is that it has forced us all to be more efficient in how we use our water.”
The series finale features Lisa Brenneis of Churchill-Brenneis Orchard in the Ojai Valley of Ventura County. She worked with UCCE advisor Ben Faber to install a new water-efficient irrigation system. “Irrigation is the only job we really have to do,” Brenneis said, “and we have to get it as right as we can.”
For a complete list of drought tips, see http://ucanr.edu/drought-tips.
“In general, a reduced lignin trait in alfalfa is very welcome,” said Dan Putnam, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. “The low-lignin trait has some interesting potential implications for dairy cows and other ruminants, as well as for yield, agronomic efficiency, and even energy and water use efficiency.”
The new variety, called KK179, was developed by Forage Genetics International, Monsanto and the Nobel Foundation. Some of the field testing took place at UC Davis and the UC Intermountain Research and Extension Center in Tulelake, Calif.
KK179 differs from most other GMO agricultural crops in that the modification improves the plant quality. Other common modifications, such as glyphosate resistance and addition of a Bt gene, were designed to help with pest control.
Another difference is the source of the modified gene, Putnam said. In glyphosate-resistant (Roundup Ready) alfalfa, for example, the plant was modified by inserting a bacteria gene. Gene segments reducing lignin were derived from alfalfa itself.
Lignin is a fibrous part of cell walls in plants. It strengthens stems, helping the plant grow upright. However, its concentration in alfalfa is high compared to other forages, a drawback for what is considered the premiere forage of dairy cows.
“Farmers often try to cut early to reduce lignin,” Putnam said. “Unfortunately, yields are decreased by early cutting, often by many tons per acre. If growers were able to harvest later and still obtain good quality, yields would improve.”
That leads to the potential energy- and water-conserving aspects of the KK179 alfalfa.
“If growers reduce harvests by one each year and increase yields with no quality penalty, energy use would decline,” Putnam said. “Also, the amount of milk produced per unit of water used to grow the feed may be increased.”
KK179 won't be for everybody, Putnam cautions. Some export markets reject GMO technology, so growers should check whether their markets will accept alfalfa with the low-lignin trait. Another concern is the possibility of gene flow for farmers who grow alfalfa seed for organic production or export.
“Further research and experience by farmers and researchers are needed to fully understand the importance and implications of reduced-lignin alfalfa on farms,” Putnam said, “but this trait holds some very exciting possibilities.”
An initiative to enhance competitive and sustainable food systems is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025
But in addition to its over $1 billion value to the state of California, alfalfa provides a host of environmental benefits that are frequently overlooked. What are these benefits?
Benefits to the soil. In addition to being an important cash crop for growers, alfalfa is good for our soil. Alfalfa is a perennial flowering plant in the pea family that is planted in the fall and remains in a field for four to six years. The crop requires few inputs, as the plants fix their own nitrogen from Rhizobia bacteria colonizing the roots, with 90 percent coming from atmospheric nitrogen. Free fertilizer from nature! The long alfalfa stand life also gives the soil a chance to rest from frequent field crop rotations, helps provide nitrogen for subsequent crops and improves soil tilth.
Alfalfa is an insectary. Alfalfa also hosts a diversity of insects, many of which are beneficial, such as lady beetles and parasitoid wasps. These in turn help control other types of insect and mite pests in alfalfa and other crops, potentially saving growers money for pest control. One option to further manage crop pests is by strip cutting the alfalfa, a process that leaves some uncut areas during harvest so that alfalfa serves as a trap crop, holding pests that could infest neighboring crops.
Many of these wildlife benefits have been documented by bird-lovers (For more information, see Farming for birds: Alfalfa and forages as valuable wildlife habitat).
Alfalfa-ice cream in the making! Markets for alfalfa primarily include the dairy industry, with alfalfa being an important part of a cow’s feed ration, as it provides high protein and energy for high milk production. This is economically important (the dairy industry is worth $7 billion per year) but also important for human nutrition. A California alfalfa field can produce 2,400 gallons of milk per acre. So the next time you have pizza (with cheese), milk on your cereal, or ice cream, thank alfalfa.
When you smell the fragrance of newly mown hay, thank the alfalfa grower and the “Queen of Forages” which helps produce milk right here in California. Watch the fields for bird activity and see if you can spot some Swainson’s hawks feeding on rodents and helping alfalfa growers with pest control, or curlews and egrets foraging for prey. But also be grateful for a host of important wildlife and environmental benefits to the landscape that alfalfa provides.
For more information, see the UC alfalfa workgroup website.
You may wonder about this practice of ‘sheeping off’ or grazing alfalfa fields, as sheep are most associated with rangelands in the coastal foothills or the Sierras. Basque sheepherders have historically managed sheep grazing in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which is a legacy that still remains in arborglyphs, or drawings in aspen trees, and in current grazing leases on federal lands. But sheep grazing in alfalfa fields has also been a long-time practice, probably for as long as there’s been alfalfa in our valley.
Alfalfa growers also benefit from sheep grazing in their fields during wintertime when the alfalfa is dormant. Alfalfa is a perennial crop which means that the root system remains alive below ground throughout the year even when the stems and leaves die during winter dormancy. Sheep feed on winter weeds, helping to control them in both seedling as well as established alfalfa stands that may negate the need for an herbicide treatment. Sheep grazing also reduces the alfalfa vegetation that dies back in winter, producing cleaner hay, the following spring. Sheep also help control weevil insect pests by feeding on older alfalfa stems, where the weevils lay eggs. This practice may help reduce weevil pressure and feeding damage to the first alfalfa cutting when weevils are actively feeding, a positive benefit, especially for organic growers.
The correct timing of alfalfa grazing is especially important for sheep producers since incorrect timing can result in a potentially lethal condition in sheep called bloat. Bloat occurs when a ruminant, such as a sheep, consumes too much fresh alfalfa with a high concentration of leaf proteins called saponins. When saponins are digested in the rumen, they create foam that prevents the sheep from burping up gases that are a produced from digestion in their stomach. Grazing too early in the fall or too late in the spring increases the risk of bloat, which is another reason why alfalfa grazing is done during the winter months.
Studies in California have documented economic benefits for both sheep producers and alfalfa growers. Sheep producers benefit from high quality feed during wintertime. Alfalfa growers benefit from weed and weevil control, as well as cleaner hay that can result in higher quality forage compared to non-grazed alfalfa stands.
Next time you come upon an alfalfa field full of sheep, know that they’re there for a purpose, providing feed for sheep and weevil and weed control for the alfalfa, in an environmentally sound manner. And, see if you can get in a game of ‘I Spy’ and find those Great Pyrenees dogs.
For more information, see the articles listed below:
- Bell, C.E. and J.N. Guerrero. 1997. Sheep grazing effectively controls weeds in seedling alfalfa. California Agriculture 51(2):19-23. http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/repositoryfiles/ca5102p19-67649.pdf
- Doran, M.P., L. Hazeltine, R.F. Long and D.H. Putnam. 2010. Strategic grazing of alfalfa by sheep in California’s Central Valley. Technical Report. http://cesolano.ucanr.edu/files/63758.pdf
- Pelton, R.E., V.L. Marble, W.E. Wildman and G. Peterson. 1988. Fall grazing by sheep on alfalfa. California Agriculture 42(5): 4-5. http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/repositoryfiles/ca4205p4-68804.pdf
'Sheeping off' an alfalfa field.
Among the conditions necessary for a cow to produce organic milk, she must eat only organic feed or browse on organic pasture for at least the previous 36 months. However, dairy producers have found that producing or sourcing organic feed – which must be grown with no synthetic fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides – is challenging. Recently organic alfalfa made up nearly 1.4 percent of U.S. alfalfa hay production, up from .5 percent in the early 2000s.
Dan Putnam, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, an alfalfa expert, said one key obstacle for organic alfalfa producers is weed management. Putnam put together a team of alfalfa hay experts to conduct an alfalfa weed management trial at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, where 10 acres are set aside to research organic production.
In 2011, Putnam; Carol Frate, UCCE advisor in Tulare County; and Shannon Mueller, UCCE advisor in Fresno County, experimented with timing seeding and early clipping to manage organic alfalfa in a weedy field.
“Alfalfa can be planted from early September all the way through the fall and winter to early spring, depending on weather patterns,” Putnam said. “Many farmers plant in late November and wait for rain to bring the crop up. Other options are irrigating the crop up in early fall or waiting till early or late spring to plant the crop. All of these strategies have implications for weed management.”
The late November planting is quite common since, compared to a September planting, it saves farmers the trouble of putting out sprinklers. However, late fall plantings failed in this experiment.
“We had a lot of weed intrusion at that point as well as cold conditions for alfalfa growth, so the stands were poor,” Putnam said.
The earlier planting also had weed intrusion, but the researchers clipped the field when the alfalfa was 10 to 12 inches high in early spring. The clipping cut back weeds that were overtopping the alfalfa, giving an advantage to the vigorous young alfalfa seedlings.
An early spring planting after tillage to destroy weeds also resulted in a good stand, but some production was lost in the first year compared with early fall plantings.
“Many growers are starting to realize that early fall (September/October) is a better time to start their alfalfa crops,” Putnam said. “With organic growers, it is even more important to pay attention to time of seeding because they have so few weed control options.”
While this research is conducted on organic alfalfa, Putnam said the results are also applicable to conventional alfalfa production, which represents more than 98 percent of California's total alfalfa crop.
“Timing has a profound effect on the first-year yield and health of the crop and its ability to compete with weeds,” he said.
Putnam, Mueller and Frate will share more information about the organic alfalfa trial during a field day at Kearney, 9240 S. Riverband Ave., Parlier, from 8 a.m. to 12 noon Sept. 5. The field day will feature the organic production trials, alfalfa variety trials, sorghum silage and nitrogen trials, and optimizing small grain yields. Other topics will be alfalfa pest management, irrigation and stand establishment.
Ten acres at Kearney are set aside for organic research.