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NMSU agronomist says alfalfa's attributes help meet dairies' demands

TUCUMCARI, N.M. - The number of dairy cattle has more than doubled in eastern New Mexico since 2000, when Curry and Roosevelt counties were home to 65,000 milk cows. That number now has reached 131,000, which means a lot more mouths to feed.



Forage agronomist Leonard Lauriault checks the progress of alfalfa planted last fall at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari. (NMSU photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

To meet the demand, more area farmers are turning to a tried and true Southwestern crop: alfalfa. Alfalfa acreage continues to increase in Curry and Roosevelt counties, as well as the Texas counties west of I-27, despite declining water available for irrigation in the region.

"This increase is directly related to an increase in the number of dairies in the region," said Leonard Lauriault, forage agronomist at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari. "Although alfalfa may not produce as much tonnage per acre with the same amount of water as some other forages, like corn and sorghum, it does produce the greatest forage value in regard to yield and quality for dairy cattle."

Alfalfa has many other attributes making it a desirable crop in this geographic area, Lauriault said. As a long-lived perennial, remaining productive for seven or more years with good management, alfalfa doesn't require tillage and replanting every year. This frees the producer's time for other activities in addition to protecting the soil from wind and water erosion.

Alfalfa is efficient at harvesting soil moisture and nutrients because it's very deeply rooted, Lauriault said. Because of its deep root system, alfalfa tolerates drought well, he said, and it also uses dormancy to avoid severe moisture stress.

"Alfalfa can recover after long-term irrigation termination, maintaining ground cover and protecting the soil if irrigation water is needed for other crops," Lauriault said. Information about drought management of alfalfa is available from any NMSU county Cooperative Extension Service Office or online at http://cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/_circulars/CR-581.pdf.

"With all its attributes, there are still some considerations for producers interested in planting alfalfa," Lauriault said. "Most importantly, spring is not the best time to plant because it leads to reduced first-year yields, increased likelihood of wind erosion during land preparation, increased weed pressure affecting stand establishment that requires costly control, and higher irrigation requirements for establishment and first summer survival."

Planting in mid-August to late September, depending on location, overcomes many problems and gives prospective alfalfa growers the opportunity now to begin with the most critical step in establishing alfalfa - variety selection. The 2006 New Mexico Alfalfa Variety Test Report, available through county Extension Service Offices or online (http://cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/variety_trials/var06.pdf), provides alfalfa variety selection guidelines regarding fall dormancy category, pests and yield.

Producers should make variety selections and order seed now to assure its availability at planting time, Lauriault said. Those who decide to purchase cheaper, untreated seed should look at the germination and hard (or dormant) seed percentages. Alfalfa seed should have a germination of 85 percent or better, with very little dormant seed. There is no demonstrated advantage to planting dormant seed, Lauriault said.

For questions about alfalfa establishment or management, call any county Cooperative Extension Service Office. Lauriault can be reached at (505) 461-1620, lmlaur@nmsu.edu.