Quality Alfalfa Hinges on Details

January 9, 2017 02:48 PM

Variety selection, precise management and optimal environment are grower’s premium

In the dead calm of a summer night, even agriculture sleeps—but not David Hinman. Minutes past midnight, the Wheatland, Wyo., producer wakes up and checks humidity levels via weather apps, slips out of bed and pulls on his boots. Outside, on ground 5,250' in elevation staring up at the Laramie Mountains, some of the country’s finest alfalfa awaits baling.

At Hardrock Farms, quality alfalfa sits on a three-legged stool of variety, precise management and optimal environment. The reputation for premium hay brings customer calls from more than 1,000 miles away. 

Hinman maintains six to seven alfalfa varieties on a mix of sandy loam, clay and rocky soil. The planting window falls between May 15 and June 1, and he typically plants straight with no cover crops. 

Dandelions are a major issue, so Hinman plants roughly 22 lb. of alfalfa seed per acre to choke out weeds and minimize spray applications of Raptor and Velpar. He fertilizes in cool fall or early spring weather with 200 lb. of 11-52-0 and 150 lb. of potash, as well as sulfur when needed. Fields are soil sampled annually, with periodic grid sampling. Hinman’s alfalfa is mostly grass-free, and he doesn’t face many nitrate issues.

Despite arid, dry surroundings, Hinman is blessed with abundant water resources. Hardrock is part of the biggest privately owned irrigation project in the U.S. The reservoir is fed by the Laramie River and members own the water rights. The reservoir’s board of directors bring water down starting May 10. In the hottest periods of July, he leaves center pivots pumping. Depending on Mother Nature, he irrigates until Sept. 25. 

Irrigation is shut off four days prior to each of the four cuttings, which are spaced on 28-day cycles. Provided Hinman gets the first cut finished during the second week of June, he pushes for a fourth cutting before the cold sets in during October. Following the fourth cutting, he pastures the ground or leaves it alone until regrowth in the spring. A good variety will bring four to five years of growth, he says, and even more if the stand is kept clean.

Hinman’s field movements are dictated by moisture. He cuts in the afternoon when sugars are higher in the plants. The first cutting lays at least a week because of volume. The second and third cuttings lay for five days due to warming. The fourth and final cutting lays 10 days to ensure leaves are properly dried. 

With humidity in his area running at 10% to 15% during the day, alfalfa hay is extremely dry and crunchy during daylight hours, nearly crumbling to the touch. However, with minimal rainfall in summer and fall, the alfalfa can stay out for days and remain green. 

Each night, Hinman pulls up AccuWeather and WeatherBug apps to check humidity and wind forecasts. His farthest field is 13 miles from his house and humidity can vary even over short distances. 

Once humidity reaches 50% in the early morning air, Hinman’s wife, Teri, starts raking and he follows with the baler. They work until morning, stopping when the ground becomes too wet and humidity reaches 80%.

The nighttime baling window is crucial to hay quality. When humidity levels rise as the sun goes down, the hay toughens. Normally, Hinman lets hay dry to less than 8% moisture.

High humidity and moisture equate to lower quality alfalfa hay: brown or bleached forage. “The less moisture you have on the hay, other than when you bale it, the better off you are,” he says.  

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