If mowing the lawn has ever been on your list of chores, you’ll probably recognize this challenge. Cut the grass too often and you feel like you’re wasting time and energy. Wait too long between cuttings and suddenly the yard looks terrible. Farmers across the country face a similar problem, albeit on a larger scale, when it comes to a common forage crop: alfalfa.
For those who only know alfalfa as the character from The Little Rascals, here’s a quick overview. Alfalfa is a perennial flowering plant commonly used as a main ingredient in animal feed. Farmers combine alfalfa with other ingredients—like corn and soybeans—to provide their animals a well-balanced diet.
“Alfalfa offers a number of advantages for cattle over other types of forage,” says Allison Foxx, marketing manager for Forage Genetics International (FGI), a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, Inc. “It’s an excellent source of fiber and high-quality protein, and it’s cost effective and works well with other types of forage and grains in animal feed.”
The process is relatively simple. Farmers plant alfalfa and let it grow in their fields until it reaches a specific maturity, at which point they cut it, let it dry, then collect it into the bales you’ve probably seen when driving along any country road. But determining when to cut is the challenge...bringing us back to the lawn mowing dilemma. Cutting too often means higher quality, but more stress on the stand and more time in the tractor, which has associated fuel and labor costs. Waiting too long increases yield, however the quality of the alfalfa decreases, which means animals receive fewer nutrients in every bite.
That’s where Land O’Lakes comes in. As a company founded by dairy farmers—who happen to be heavy alfalfa users—we take forage very seriously. As a farm-to-fork cooperative, we have direct access to farmers in the field and some of the leading experts in crop science and animal nutrition. We put this model to work and, through our FGI business, are introducing a new product that’s changing the game for alfalfa harvesting.
“HarvXtra® alfalfa gives growers the ability to better manage the yield-versus-quality tradeoff,” says Allison. “It offers more flexibility in their cutting schedule to achieve improved forage quality or greater yield potential, when compared to conventional alfalfa.”
The secret is in something called lignin, a structural component important to the formation of cell walls in plants. As alfalfa plants mature from vegetative to bloom stage, the cell wall content increases and subsequently decreases the digestibility of the plant. HarvXtra® alfalfa fundamentally changes this process by decreasing the lignin content. This allows farmers to delay the harvest, letting the plants grow a bit longer (yield) without risking digestibility (quality) of the forage, compared to conventional varieties at the same stage of maturity.
With the HarvXtra® alfalfa, farmers can choose to cut on a standard 28-day cycle for higher-quality forage (compared to conventional alfalfa) or delay harvest for 7 to 10 days without sacrificing quality. Additionally, by delaying a week or so farmers can increase yield potential, decrease the number of cuttings over a growing season and potentially reduce overall harvest costs.
The co-op advantage
While all this sounds great, as with any new product it’s important to put the benefits to the test. That’s where being a cooperative comes in handy. Leveraging our network of member cooperatives and dairy members, we’ve been conducting field trials to evaluate the results and offer our members an opportunity to be among the first to realize the benefits of this new technology.
Member-owner Mike Brunmeier’s Wisconsin dairy operation includes approximately 425 milk cows and 725 cropping acres. With 325 acres of alfalfa and the rest in corn, Mike grows most of the forage and grain he needs to support his dairy herd himself.
Always keeping an eye out for the newest technologies that can improve the efficiency of his herd and overall operation, in 2015 he planted 18 acres of HarvXtra® alfalfa and added 50 more acres in 2016. His ultimate goal was to gain cutting flexibility without losing quality and, after one full season in 2015 and his first cutting in 2016, Brunmeier has been encouraged by what he’s seen.
“This year was a perfect example of why we’re interested in HarvXtra® alfalfa. After we started the first cutting, it rained every couple of days, which delayed the whole cutting schedule,” Mike says. “We decided to test the HarvXtra® alfalfa and cut it last—about 10 days after the first field was cut. The first thing we noticed was that it had produced a large quantity of feed and the samples showed that it had an advantage in quality relative to the rest of the alfalfa in our fields.”
After a limited introduction in 2016, HarvXtra® Alfalfa with Roundup Ready® Technology is now available for purchase across all of the United States*. And based on the results from initial grower experiences, this new alfalfa technology could provide farmers with many long-term benefits.
“With HarvXtra® alfalfa, if farmers keep their current cutting schedules, there is a higher likelihood they will be harvesting premium alfalfa hay,” says Allison. “Or they have the flexibility to manage around weather issues or reduce the number of cuttings overall, which can increase yield potential and help reduce the costs associated with harvesting.
This has farmers like Mike thinking about the future.
“Based on what we’ve seen so far, HarvXtra® alflalfa appears to be performing as promised,” he says. “If this continues, we hope to convert entirely to HarvXtra® alfalfa within four years, and possibly reduce our cuttings from four to three. It would be ideal to extend the time between cuttings, grow more while maintaining quality.”
With HarvXtra® alfalfa, we’re hoping to solve the “lawn mowing dilemma” for farmers one field at a time. Instead of stressing over when, and how often, to cut, farmers can take advantage of a new, unprecedented flexibility in their cutting schedules—saving time and money along the way.
For the rest of us residential lawnmowers, however, the struggle continues.
*Seed and Feed Use Agreement required in the Western U.S.