Dr. Dan Talks Agronomy
By Daniel Davidson
DTN Contributing Agronomist
Selling alfalfa isn't as easy as I thought. In a depressed commodity market, it is hard to convey quality.
I started working toward producing high-yield alfalfa over the last few years. I'm on the hunt for 10 tons per acre yield. Perhaps if I do everything right and the weather cooperates, I'll be able to meet the goal this year.
However, one of the things I came up against this past winter was marketing nearly 1,000 large round bales of alfalfa. In previous years, the market was better and we had fewer bales. It only took a few phone calls to get it sold with no questions asked about quality. This year, I had to resort to advertising and trying to explain alfalfa quality.
My harvest strategy for alfalfa is to windrow it in about 30-to-40-acre blocks so I can bale in the late evening in a three- to four-hour timespan. After windrowing and drying (about three to four days after cutting), we flip two windrows together into one between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. I come back in the evening about 9:30 p.m. to bale and want to be done by 1 a.m. before the hay starts to toughen up as moisture increases. I have a moisture sensor on our baler and monitor readings from the cab. I target the 16%-to-21% moisture range. At 14% or less, there is leaf loss. Above 22%, the hay gets tough. I will stop baling if I am outside that moisture window.
When I pull into a field and harvest, I collect a hay sample for the field as I bale, gathering handfuls from multiple locations. I take the sample to a laboratory for alfalfa forage analysis and like to focus on relative feed value (RFV) as a general indicator of quality. We were able to pull off up to five cuttings in 2016, with the first cutting about May 15. The RFV started out in the 160-range for the first cutting and dropped about 20 units with each subsequent cutting (140 to 80 from the second to the fifth cutting). The declining quality trend surprised me because it seemed inverse to the feel of the hay during the baling process.
When the phone started to ring, buyers asked questions about cutting and quality. I began to realize the importance of separating bales by cutting. Unfortunately, in 2016, I comingled all my cuttings in rows of bales and it was difficult to separate them. This year we will make sure to organize and identify by cutting. I'm not sure they will be sold on that basis, but I'm trying to be prepared for that opportunity if a buyer makes the request.
Again, I am finding that trying convey quality of the alfalfa difficult. It seemed that talking about RFV, dry matter, crude protein, fiber, digestible nutrients falls on deaf ears because buyers don't seem to know the terms, nor understand the numbers. Instead, I found myself talking more about how I harvested and baled the hay, monitoring moisture and assuring them that I strive to put up the best quality of hay I can. Often though, the final sale had more to do with price and freight.
The buyers know what they want in good quality hay and usually can judge by seeing it. Most don't rely on laboratory numbers, so I need a better way to convey appearance, smell and feel. Gary Steele with WHB Video Auctions in Vale, South Dakota, recommends that alfalfa producers use a scoring chart to describe alfalfa in terms that buyers can more readily understand including protein, relative feed value, color, smell, leafiness, maturity when cut, purity, softness, bale shape and damage. He has a scoring system that he has his customers (sellers) use to score their hay.
I am not sure that buyers will appreciate another score, but at least I can talk about quality in terms they appreciate. I am going to incorporate these physical aspects into my hay evaluation as I bale in 2017.
For more information on relative feed value from Kansas State University, visit https://www.asi.k-state.edu/…
Dan Davidson can be reached at djdavidson@agwrite
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