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Published July 12, 2011, 08:23 AM

Alfalfa to play bigger role?

Mandan, N.D., farmer Mike Gartner once was stuck with a wet, salty field that couldn’t be farmed. For 25 years, he paid taxes on the 9.3-acre piece but received no income from it.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Mandan, N.D., farmer Mike Gartner once was stuck with a wet, salty field that couldn’t be farmed. For 25 years, he paid taxes on the 9.3-acre piece but received no income from it.

Finally, in late 2006, he planted a salt-tolerant variety of alfalfa on the field — and the results have been five years of solid alfalfa crops.

“I wish I’d done it a lot sooner,” Gartner says of planting alfalfa.

Farmers across the Northern Plains are struggling with excess moisture and unplanted fields this summer. An estimated 6.3 million acres of North Dakota farmland will go unplanted this year.

Planting cover crops on that land will protect the soil and use of some of the excess moisture, officials say.

Using an annual crop — one that germinates, flowers, and dies in a single year or season — is one option, particularly for farmers who hope to plant wheat, corn, soybeans or another mainstream crop on the land in 2012.

For instance, a combination of forage radish and field peas works well as a cover crop. Dave Franzen, soil specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service, says in a recent issue of the weekly NDSU Crop and Pest Report.

Perennial crops such as alfalfa, a heavy user of water, can provide a longer-term option by lowering high water tables, says Ryan Odenbach, watershed coordinator with the Stutsman County Soil Conservation District in Jamestown, N.D.

“If you can get alfalfa established, it can be a good option,” he says.

Salinity in soil

Salinity, or the salt level of soil, often goes hand in hand with high water tables and excess moisture.

Controlling the flow of saline water into the crop root zone is crucial to managing saline soil — and lowering the water table is the right management tool when the source of the saline water is a shallow water table, according to information from the NDSU Extension Service.

Further, alfalfa is an excellent choice to help reduce the water table, the Extension Service says.

Researchers have developed new alfalfa varieties, as well as varieties of other forage crops, that they say are more tolerant of saline and consequently can play a bigger role in combating high water tables.

Don Miller, the Nampa, Idaho-based plant breeder/director of product development for Producer’s Choice Seed, says he has been working cooperatively with government agencies in North Dakota and Montana for several years on salt-tolerant varieties.

His company supplied the alfalfa seed used on Gartner’s previously unfarmable 9.3-acre piece near Mandan.

Miller suggests farmers with soggy, unplanted fields consider planting salt-tolerant alfalfa or other forage.

“I realize that planting alfalfa is not the total solution to solving the current problem, but it could provide one possible long-term solution in an integrated approach to improving a chronic problem,” Miller says.

Planting alfalfa probably won’t appeal to all farmers with excess moisture, Odenbach says.

“If a producer doesn’t have cattle, he’s a lot less likely to be interested,” he says.

Even so, interest in planting alfalfa and other forage crops is rising, he says.

Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation or Soil Conservation District office for more information on using alfalfa to control excess moisture and soil salinity.

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