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Asking The Right Questions. Growing Alfalfa In Today’s Climate

October 21, 2022

Mark Hovda

Western Regional Manager

Mark Hovda – Regional Sales Agronomist AZ

All the time Alfalfa in the desert southwest.  PLANT. WATER. CUT. REPEAT, and REPEAT and REPEAT etc. Okay, we know it’s not quite that simple to grow alfalfa in the desert but there IS a certain amount of repetitiveness involved. With growers seeing anywhere from 10-12 cuttings/year it is a much bigger challenge than one might think. We also essentially have three separate alfalfa markets that are quite distinct.

  1. Local forage for animal agriculture where quality alfalfa is huge part of the diet
  2. Large local retail market where quality is less of a consideration than quantity
  3. Growing export market where firm minimums for RFQ are set

What do all of these markets have in common? WATER.

This has always been the key consideration growing crops in a desert, but it is now becoming enormous. While it has always been a challenge, it is expected to get a lot worse.  If water is expensive, the cost can be passed on to the consumer. When water becomes restricted, our options are few. We just do more with less.  Improving nutrient use efficiency and working with soil biology is an avenue that can help with just that.

See local field data on treating alfalfa crop with QLF Agronomy’s Liquid Carbon-Based Fertilizer (L-CBF) BOOST.  With minimal amounts of nutrients applied yields and plant stands were positively impacted.

The main goal of this Maricopa, AZ farm is producing more tonnage for the retail hay market. Positive results from just two applications of L-CBF BOOST 4-0-3-2S at 5 Gal/Acre each time, which in terms nutrients applied per acre is approximately, 4.4 Lbs. of Nitrogen – 0 Lbs. of Phosphorus – 3.3 Lbs. of Potassium – 2.2 Lbs. of Sulfur, and 33 Lbs./Acre of plant sugar derived from sugar cane molasses.  From the 3 of 7 cuttings sampled between December and July an average increase per acre measured +550 more pounds of Dry Matter per cutting resulting in ~$84.98 ROI.  Additional yield increased from all harvested crops could’ve contributed to the total of sampled results.  Conditions over this time frame presented environmental challenges with varying temperatures including extreme heat.  Trial fields utilize flood irrigation.

In addition to trials on alfalfa, QLF has compared yield results in Corn Silage fields.  Anecdotally at the time of harvest it was easy to see the moisture content differences in the soil treated with L-CBF products.  Perhaps these better crop performing borders were results of increased biological activity throughout the growing season.  Around the root zone an area known as the rhizosheath (def. where the soil physically adheres to the root) it is sometimes very apparent there is more soil coating and clinging to roots.  This is a result of increased Mucilage.  The dictionary defines mucilage as a polysaccharide substance extracted as a viscous or gelatinous solution from plant roots, seeds, etc., and used in medicines and adhesives.  The science supports the benefits we see from utilizing QLF L-CBF products.  Increasing mucilage enhances soil aggregate stability, which in the long term promotes soil aeration, root growth, and reduces soil erosion. (Guckert et al. 1975; Morel et al. 1990; Czarnes et al. 2000).  Mucilage also possesses a high intrinsic affinity for water, when fully hydrated, water content 100,000 times greater than its dry weight (McCully and Boyer 1997).

While looking at the agenda for the upcoming World Alfalfa Congress, here are the subjects I made note of on just the first page. WATER, WATER and WATER. Water scheduling. Water monitoring. Water flow. Deficit Watering. Water evaporation. Water salinity. Water systems for specific soils. Effluent Watering. Are you seeing a trend here? There seems to be some concern about this topic, as there should be. It is no longer just expensive and it will no longer be voluntary as mandates are put in place to force the change. It’s not IF we can change but HOW we will do this.  What REALLY can be done? Probably all of the above in one form or another, but the important thing will be to NOT cause long term damage when making short term adjustments.

More questions to consider:

  • Can we affect the water holding capacity of the soil by making the microbial population more robust?
  • By making some key changes to the fertility program are we able to do things such as accelerating the absorption of this valuable resource and cheating the evaporation process?
  • Are we able to implement practices where we can demonstrate an improvement in water efficiency while still being able to maintain plant health and not lapse into stress situations where the plants are more vulnerable to pests and weeds?
  • Can we decrease the days to plant maturity and potentially save a watering event?

We believe that taking a comprehensive approach to finding solutions to this critical issue is where answers will be found.  QLF Agronomy’s Liquid Carbon-Based Fertilizers that promote plant and soil health, as well as enhancing nutrient use efficiencies, will definitely be a part of the long-term solution for this vital, global industry.

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