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Published August 31, 2010, 07:57 AM

King of hay: My first second cutting

TOWNER, N.D. — When I was in college, an animal nutrition professor always called alfalfa “the king of hay.” Whatever you measured — crude protein, relative feed value, taste, smell, bovine yumminess — alfalfa had it going on. Of course it had to be put up right to get all that.

By: Ryan Taylor, Special to Agweek

TOWNER, N.D. — When I was in college, an animal nutrition professor always called alfalfa “the king of hay.” Whatever you measured — crude protein, relative feed value, taste, smell, bovine yumminess — alfalfa had it going on. Of course it had to be put up right to get all that.

Our ranch never had much for alfalfa acres. Most all our hay ground was native meadows. Low, sub-irrigated marshes and bogs and hogwallows dotted with sloughs full of ducks and muskrats to watch us get stuck while we hayed.

If alfalfa is the king of hay, then our bales of meadow and slough grass are kind of the “peasant serfs of hay.” No royal nutritional qualities but common, plentiful and able to get you through the winter without a lot of fanfare.

Alfalfa valley

When our area was homesteaded, one of the posters from the railroad’s boosters who wanted more settlers, train business, and land sales, called this country “alfalfa valley.” Lush, prosperous and aromatic, made you want to move right out here.

Growing alfalfa wasn’t quite as easy as they made it out to be. The best time to plant alfalfa in our sand is right before a nice rain. That’s hard to predict. If you get some rain and get it growing, the best time to cut the alfalfa is right before a warm dry spell. Almost as tough to find as the rain was when you were planting it.

Dad planted a dab or two of alfalfa on some sandy ridges of our hay meadow years ago. One stand was at least 50 years old when I reseeded it last year. As ranchers, we’re a little afraid of our farming ability, so we’re not in that crowd of hay raisers who replant their alfalfa stands every five to seven years.

Even reseeding that 50-year-old stand was questionable because I could still see a few alfalfa plants out there. Hate to give up on a growing legume in our country even if it is 50 feet to the next one.

I got lucky on my alfalfa seeding venture last year. It rained last year, and it rained a bunch this year.

New experience

I turned 40 years old this year, been haying since I was 9, and this year was the first time I ever took a second cutting of alfalfa. Maybe this wasn’t “alfalfa valley” after all.

It’s kind of like the old story about the eastern farmer who was bragging about getting three cuttings of alfalfa every year and asked his western friend if he got three cuttings. “Sure, I get three cuttings,” the arid westerner says, “but it takes five years to get those three.”

But this year it all came together. Just barely blooming, I laid down that second cutting with visions of protein and energy.

Day after day went by. Too green, too green. I raked it in the morning to try and keep the leaves intact. Stems still were too green. Then suddenly, if six days can be suddenly, it was too dry. The alfalfa guys told me this was when you tuned up the headlights on your tractor and started baling at night when the dew comes out.

I thought maybe I could use the old grazing strategy of “take half, leave half.” The half I’d take would be the sticks and stems, and the half I’d leave would be those tender leaves to help enrich the soil. That way I could sleep at night like regular folks.

If I did that, they told me, I could say goodbye to the king of hay. I never was much for high maintenance royalty.

I’ll be glad to get back in the bogs with my peasant hay again.

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