It takes a certain kind of due diligence to raise crops every year in a region where annual rainfall averages only 24 inches. That’s what Pieter and Anita Vanderlaan bring to their operation to provide forage for their 8,900-head dairy cow and replacement herd.
With an 8,900-head herd, Pieter Vanderlaan and his wife, Anita, have a lot of mouths to feed.
Since starting their operation in 2002, the Vanderlaans have used a combination of irrigated and dryland farming practices on their 5,500 acres near Frederick, Oklahoma, where they grow alfalfa, corn and grass. They milk 3,200 cows three times a day and the remaining 1,500 twice a day in two parallel parlors—a double 40 and a double 24.
Milking cows are fed a total mixed ration of alfalfa and corn silage, while the dry cows and replacements get by on grass hay. The Vanderlaans retain a nutritionist to balance the rations.
They raise their feed in a rotation standard to many dairy farms. “We try to keep the corn in fields for six to seven years and alfalfa four to five years,” says Pieter Vanderlaan.
The operation’s acreage features sandy soils, sandy loams and even a bit of clay. Vanderlaan says he can plant alfalfa in all of it.
Differing soil types require growers to be aware of their limitations. “Sandy soils may have excessive drainage, requiring different irrigation strategies, such as sprinklers,” says Dan Putnam, University of California Cooperative Extension specialist. “Light soils also more frequently lack certain nutrients.”
Like so many other U.S. dairy farmers, Vanderlaan opts for fall seeding. “If we get our alfalfa in by the middle of September, we’ll be fine,” he says. “Otherwise, we’ll be fighting the wind to get it in.”
Fall is also a good choice for California growers. “The ideal time to plant alfalfa is from mid-September in the Sacramento Valley to early October in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys,” Putnam says.
With soil pH varying from 7.7 to 8, Vanderlaan applies gypsum at 1 ton per acre every year. To prep, he’ll pull a ripper across the surface at a 2-foot depth, twice, to break up the hardpan. “We change the blades to a 30-degree angle and come back with the ripper again,” he says.
Next, he runs a field cultivator across the field and follows with a tractor—equipped with dual tires in the rear and front tires spaced to track between the rear tires—to tamp the soil down. “Then, we’ll run the field cultivator over it one more time and harrow it to smooth it up to get a good seedbed,” he says.
When it’s time to empty lagoons, he applies 15 tons per acre. Phosphorus and potassium are applied in liquid form, based on the results of pre-planting soil tests on every field.
Putnam recommends seeding at 20 to 25 pounds per acre for broadcast and 15 to 20 pounds for drilling. Research shows lowering alfalfa seeding rates to 12 to 15 pounds per acre won’t reduce yields, if good tillage and proper seed depth are part of the mix.
Vanderlaan says his goal is to plant “as shallow as we can get it.” He shoots for a 20-pound-per-acre seeding rate at a one-quarter-inch depth, seeding his alfalfa with a Sunflower® 9435 grain drill. He’s tried aerial seeding in the past, but the region’s winds left him with fields seeded in stripes.
Irrigated acreage is seeded with Roundup Ready and low-lignin varieties. He managed to get enough new W-L HarvXtra reduced-lignin seed in the past two years to plant 480 acres. Oklahoma Common works best on his dryland acreage. “I tried some different ones out here, and even some Roundup Ready varieties, but they wouldn’t hold up,” he says.
Putnam says he’s seen far too many growers base seed purchase decisions on cost alone. “At [University of California] Davis, we often see up to a 1.5- to 3-ton-per-acre, per-year difference due only to variety—a difference that can be worth more than $1,000 per acre over three years.”
Confronted mainly with grasses and pigweed, Vanderlaan gets after the grass in early spring—February and March—on the Roundup Ready acres. He uses Butyrac 200 for broadleaf control, and Select and Pursuit on his dryland acres. Weeds resistant to Roundup become a nuisance in fourth- and fifth-year stands. “Roundup still gets about half of them, and the other half just keep growing,” he says.
Conventional tillage site prep is very much the same everywhere. In New York state, however, there’s a general trend toward reduced and no-tillage, driven in part by the slopes with which the region’s farmers must contend. A regional conservation ethic is also a factor.
Northeastern alfalfa and corn rotations are shorter than those the Vanderlaans employ. “We recommend alfalfa plantings for four to five years and corn silage for two to three years,” says Joe Lawrence, a Lowville, New York, Cornell University PRO-DAIRY forage systems specialist.
Moving north into New England, the split between conventional and reduced tillage becomes more evenly distributed. A farm’s ability to afford a drill drives the decision more than anything else, says Carl Majewski, University of New Hampshire Extension field specialist.
Cornell Cooperative Extension recommends New York growers use a 15- to 18-pound-per-acre seeding rate for pure and mixed stands, and one-quarter to one-half-inch seed depth. Time has proved a mix of 80% alfalfa and 20% grass seed works best.
New England growers who plant mixed stands should seed alfalfa at 12 to 15 pounds per acre and grass at 5 to 8 pounds, depending on the variety, Majewski says.
Frigid winter and early spring weather moderates the region’s weed and insect pressure. “We see some annual weeds in early-season plantings, but much less in the late summer plantings,” Majewski says. “There is very little insect activity here, though we occasionally see some leafhoppers.”
With the advent of zone-specific, Southern-adapted alfalfa varieties, production is on the rise across the Southeast, says Jennifer Tucker, a University of Georgia beef nutrition and forage management assistant professor. Due to higher fertilizer and transportation costs—making other crops less cost-effective—as well as demand for high-quality hay, especially by the horse industry, it’s a crop on a rebound.
“Low pH and potassium levels are common in this region,” says Tucker, and stand persistence can only be accomplished with subsoil pH levels at 5 or higher. If deep-tillage lime incorporation is not an option, it can take eight years or more to raise subsoil pH with surface applications.
Absent that, alfalfa stands rarely last past the second or third year, once taproot growth extends below the topsoil.
Conventional tillage and planting into a prepared seedbed is ideal for pure alfalfa stands in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, Tucker says. “No-till establishment is seeing an increase, specifically when considering interseeding alfalfa into Bermudagrass sods.”
Tucker’s research into this practice has convinced her it may be the road back to alfalfa production in the Deep South. She recommends growers no-till alfalfa seed into Bermuda sods in late October, after a light application of Roundup to force early dormancy.
For establishing pure alfalfa stands, conventional tillage works well in northwestern Georgia, the west-central regions of the Carolinas and central Virginia. That’s because the ground tends toward higher-quality Piedmont soils.
The Deep South’s warm weather and plentiful rainfall make fall seedings an easier choice for mixed-stand establishment. “It’s not that you can’t have spring establishment success,” says Tucker. However, she notes that in a region such as south Georgia, “the spring and summer weed populations are very strong, and you don’t have a lot of control options in alfalfa-Bermudagrass mixtures.”
Aggressive pest scouting is key. “In the last few years in the summers, we’ve seen a lot of three-cornered alfalfa hopper, which are probably coming over from the peanuts,” she says. She also mentions aphids and, of course, alfalfa weevils.