BOZEMAN, Mont. - Warmer-than-usual spring temperatures and rainfall is resulting in an earlier alfalfa growth and maturation season than usual, according to Montana State University Forage Extension specialist Emily Glunk.
“Along with the quicker spring growth, we are also seeing pest populations advancing faster than usual,” Glunk says. “Producers need to be on the lookout for things like alfalfa weevil, aphids and cutworms, as they may be out in large numbers earlier than usual. Scouting is the best way to know what the population density is, and to make management decisions based on population density.”
Glunk says most producers and seed companies are choosing to plant RoundUp Ready varieties of alfalfa because it creates flexibility in weed control. In fact, some of the seed sales representatives estimate more than half of the seed they sell to Montana is Roundup Ready.
“Producers should still be cognizant of incorporating a well-managed weed control plan, including cultural and biological methods of control rather than just chemical,” Glunk says. “Managing stand(s) to keep (them) as healthy and productive as possible is a great way to help manage weeds.”
Alfalfa is also being incorporated into crop rotation systems, which helps break up pest cycles, recycle nutrients and diversify crop rotations, and Glunk expects this trend to advance as research continues to evaluate diversification in crop systems and impacts on soil health and crop productivity.
“New technologies are always emerging, and we do our best to stay on top of what is going to be available,” says Glunk, who says breeding programs for improved resistance and productivity are making rapid advances, and the industry is seeing big impacts on alfalfa quality. For example, a new variety of alfalfa on the market has been selectively bred for reduced lignin production, which improves digestibility and quality while maintaining yield.
According to a National Agricultural Statistics Service Survey, a total of 1.7 million acres harvest alfalfa annually in Montana, with nearly 90 percent remaining on-farm and the rest being sold. The state averages approximately 2 tons per acre for alfalfa production, compared to about 1.6 tons per acre on all other hay.
Last year, production totaled 3.4 million tons of alfalfa, which was estimated at $431,800,000. Montana also has a presence in the alfalfa seed industry, producing nearly 5 million pounds of seed last year, which was planted on 12,000 acres.
“A lot of producers are willing to try new things, whether it be a different soil fertility management plan or trying out new varieties,” Glunk says. “They are always looking for the next thing. I think this lends itself to (Montana) being a profitable alfalfa production state.”
Alfalfa is a high-quality forage crop with high protein and energy content and has proven lucrative in Montana as a result of the state’s large beef cattle industry. It is also attractive to pollinators and creates an environment for many beneficial insects like ladybugs and damsel bugs.
Additionally, as a legume, alfalfa has the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen and add it back to the soil. Producers are also beginning to see the potential in its large taproot, which extends many feet into the soil to reach deep soil moisture and nutrients helping to break up compacted soils.