My brother Leland Holle and I farm in partnership about 400 acres of corn, milo, wheat, soybeans, oats, and hay. We also have a 45 cow beef herd and 40 sow farrow to finish hog operation. Over the past then years we have adopted many sustainable farming practices, such as crop rotations, non-chemical weed control, legume-cereal grain interseeding, use of green manures, etc. at some point we may certify our cops and livestock as organic.
Ed Reznicek with the Kansas Rural Center helped set up our trial, organize the field day, collect harvested forage data and draft this report. Eugene Edelman and Paul Conway, area farmers, helped identify and locate annual forage legume varieties and seed sources. Paul Conway and Glen Linck, another area farmer, also planted some annual forage legumes and shared their experience and results. The Kansas Organic Producers helped publicize the field day and evaluate the trial.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Small grains such as wheat and oats are not often included in crop rotations in northeast Kansas because farmers do not consider them as profitable as corn, sorghum or soybeans. The use of small grain and legume crops, however, are important for sustainable cropping systems. Perennial alfalfa works well interseeded with small grains, and it is usually left for hay production tow or more years after establishment. When we do not want a perennial legume forage crop after wheat, we typically used sweet clover. Interseeding sweet clover in wheat helps make wheat a more profitable crop because of its soil building properties and thus more justifiable in a rotation, but sweet clover does not work well for hay. Would annual alfalfas provide hay or seed cutting and still compare favorably to sweet clover for soil building purposes, thereby increasing the net return to wheat/legumes in rotation and better justifying their use?
We selected two annual alfalfa varieties (Nitro and Cuf 101) and Bigbee Berseem Clover to compare with sweet clover. We decided to include the berseem clover because of it’s moderate seed cost and because we read that it is characterized by quick and vigorous establishment, good quality and quantity of forage production and good seed production.
We seeded each of these varieties into standing wheat in our test plot on April 9, 1994 at a rate of 12# per acre using a grain drill with reduced spring tension on the remaining annual alfalfa and berseem clover seed into wheat in a nearby field, dividing each of the varieties by terrace strips. With a timely rain that same weekend, the seed germinated and emerged well.
Without additional rains and a couple of days of hot dry winds in late April, soil on the test plot blew some, desiccating and killing the young alfalfa and berseem clover seedlings. Fortunately, the neighboring wheat field into which we seeded the annual alfalfas and berseem clover did not blow and we were able to establish the annual alfalfas and some berseem clover. However, we did not have a stand of sweet clover to compare these with.
We harvested the wheat on June 28 with an average yield of 28 bu/acre. We received a hard 2.5” rain on July 1st, which was the last significant rain we had until after the middle of August. The annual alfalfas were still present after harvest and , while some berseem clover still persisted, it was more of a spotty stand. Also present were foxtail and a mixture of summer annual weeds.
On July 21st the annual alfalfas were still resent but not growing much. The berseem had mostly died out and we cold see where plants had blossomed and died. None of the stands were yet significant enough to make a good hay cutting. However, on another field where we seeded perennial alfalfa in oats, the perennial alfalfa was much thicker and taller and was ready for a hay cutting. We took a forage sample of the perennial alfalfa, yielding 2,910 # of dry matter.
On August 14th, before harvesting the annual alfalfa varieties for hay, we took forage samples. The Cuf yielded 2,468#/acre, and the Nitro yielded 2,686#/acre. Some grass and weeds were mixed with the alfalfa, but it still made good hay.
On September 2, 1994 we hosted a field day in conjunction with that of Tom and David Vogelsberg. Twenty two people were present when we showed the trial. We also visited other fields in our cropping system and we handed out information sheets on our overall cropping system.
The annual alfalfas had regrown to about 6 inches by September 2nd and the stands looked very good. Removing the grass and weed competition (though it was not sever) appeared to significantly help the annual alfalfas. By this point all that could be found of the berseem clover were a few flowering stems and some dried seed heads.
Dry weather through the remainder of summer and early fall allowed little further growth of the annual alfalfas. We took a final forage sample on November 19, 1995. The Nitro yielded 1,016#/acre and the Cuf yielded 653#/acre. By mid December we began pasturing the alfalfas along with grain sorghum stubble in the vicinity. The cattle grazed the alfalfas down to the ground and did well on the combination of alfalfa and grain sorghum stubble.
The annual alfalfas did not grow noticeably longer into the fall than the perennial alfalfa and they did not winter kill. In early April 1995 there remained a good stand of the annual alfalfas and they began growing well, along with the perennial alfalfa. We plan to let the annual alfalfas grow this season and see how they perform with forage production and over wintering next year.
Given the loss of our primary test plot, this trial did not have enough controls to draw firm, conclusive results. But we did learn from it and it raised more questions. Perennial alfalfa seeded into oats outperformed the annual alfalfa and berseem clover seeded into wheat. Perhaps it is easier to establish forage legumes in oats than in wheat. It would be interesting to see this trial repeated using perennial alfalfa alongside annual alfalfas with all of them seeded either into oats or wheat. The berseem clover didn’t work as well as the annual alfalfas. It didn’t establish as well. It did not appear to stand the hot, dry weather of late summer before it blooms. This can be a problem because the berseem may bloom before wheat or oat harvest, in which case you can’t cut it. Also rain or the demands of other farm work may delay forage harvest and cause the loss of the berseem crop by not harvesting it before bloom. The alfalfas and sweet clover are much more forgiving in this regard.
Seeding legumes in small grain and harvesting forage makes the small grains economically competitive with corn and soybeans, not counting the price support payments for corn and assuming the forage legumes are used or marketed well. We did not include price support payments on corn in the economic summary below, but we also did not include the value of fixed nitrogen from the legumes in the small grains.
Cost of seeding legumes in small grains is offset by the fact that if legumes are not seeded in small grains, spraying, mowing or tillage would be necessary to control weeds after harvest. Harvesting legume forage after small grain harvest has a weed control function along with the benefit of forage production.
A disadvantage of sweet clover is that you can kill it if you mow it too short. This can be a problem if weed competition is heavy after small grain harvest. If you mow too low to cut off weed seeds, such as cocklebur, you also kill the sweet clover. This is not a problem with the annual alfalfas.
The annual alfalfas have some advantages over sweet clover, but also cost a little more to establish. However in this trial the annual alfalfas showed no advantage over perennial alfalfa. But there were no controls in this trial for testing this issue, so we aren’t drawing any conclusion from it.
A place in crop rotations where annual alfalfas seem particularly well suited are in instances where we fail to establish perennial alfalfa in small grain. Normally we leave alfalfa in for 2 to 3 years before going to corn. Failure to establish the alfalfa can be disruptive of the overall crop rotation system. Annual alfalfa can help over come this. We could follow the small grain crop in which we failed to establish perennial alfalfa with soybeans, and then come back the next year with an annual alfalfa seeded in oats. This would give us the opportunity to then follow the annual alfalfa with corn, and keep the crop rotation on schedule.
From this grant we learned that interseeding a forage legume with small grains can significantly improve the overall economic value of small grains crops. We learned some about berseem clover and annual alfalfas and how and where they might best fit in our crop rotation system. This affects our farm by giving us more legume options for our cropping system. We have more to learn about annual alfalfas and how to use them, but we have seen enough to know that there is a place for annual alfalfas in our cropping system and that their use can enhance the value of our small grain crops. In this regard this project has helped us overcome our identified barrier. However, since our primary test plot blew out, we were not able to test the berseem clover and annual alfalfas against sweet clover. If asked by other producers what we learned from this project, we would show them the economic summary and we would explain that the annual alfalfa may have a good place in crop rotation systems where you want a short term (one year) forage and nitrogen producing legume. We would also say that there needs to be more trials with the annual alfalfas and berseem clover to better determine their suitability and to make more comparisons. It is difficult to put exact figures on the impact of this practice, but it can certainly improve the economic value of small grain crops and, if it encourages greater use of small grain crops, it would have broader cropping system benefits such as reduced fertilizer and herbicide costs and improved weed control.
The Kansas Rural Center and the Kansas Organic Producers reported on this trial in their newsletters, reaching about 2,000 people. Our September 2, 1994 field day drew 22 people. With the help of the Kansas Rural Center and the Kansas Organic Producers, we announced the field day with press releases to about 35 newspapers and brochures mailed directly to about 200 farmers. We will further communicate our results by making copies of this report, particularly production and economic summaries, to those who request it. The Kansas Rural Center and Kansas Organic Producers may possibly publish an update on this project, now that we have completed the report.