Evaluation and Maintenance of Sustainable Systems for Alfalfa Production and Marketing Strategies on Coastal Plain Soils

Final Report for OS02-006

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2002: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Larry Redmon
Texas Cooperative Extension
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Project Information

Abstract:

A yield of 4.5 and 5 or more tons of alfalfa hay/ac and net income above $300/ac in the third and fourth production seasons demonstrated that alfalfa is sustainable on selected east Texas soils. Selection of well-aerated and well-drained soils with subsoil pH at 5.5 or higher in the surface four feet is critical for alfalfa on Coastal Plain soils.

Introduction

Farmers and ranchers on Coastal Plain soils in the southern US need a high nutritive value perennial legume that can be economically grown as an alternative crop in the warm season for hay production and for selective livestock grazing. Advantages of producing a perennial legume compared to hybrid bermudagrasses and annual forage grasses are: 1) Biological nitrogen fixation that provides cost savings by eliminating the need for fertilization with commercial nitrogen; 2) Nitrogen fixation preserves environmental quality by maintaining the pH of limed soils over a longer period; 3) Improved soil quality by increasing the residual nitrogen content of the soil; and 4) Reseeding is eliminated for several years. Research and demonstrations in east Texas indicate that alfalfa has the potential to be an excellent legume for warm-season production on Coastal Plain soils. Studies were initiated in the late 1980s to determine the factors that restricted alfalfa production on the Coastal Plain soils in the Piney Woods of east Texas. These soils, primarily in the Ultisol and Alfisol orders, are naturally acidic and require limestone to elevate soil pH into the range of 6.8 to 7.0 needed for alfalfa production. Boron becomes increasingly unavailable to clovers and alfalfa in limed acid soils. Even though the surface soil can be limed to the correct pH for alfalfa, aluminum levels in acid subsoil can be toxic to alfalfa roots. Subsoil acidity may be ameliorated by application of gypsum or limestone, but the desired effects of these treatments occur over an extensively long time. Soils in the Ultisol and Alfisol orders are highly leached and many are poorly drained. Poorly drained soils are excessively wet for alfalfa during extended periods of high rainfall. The study reported herein was funded for two years with a one-year extension to continue evaluation of on-farm alfalfa production initiated by Dr. Vincent Haby, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Overton, Texas, with a SARE Research and Education Grant funded to begin in 1999.

Project Objectives:

The purpose of this on-farm research grant proposal was to continue evaluation of the long-term sustainability of alfalfa production on four farm cooperators’ sites after the original SARE Research and Education grant terminated in May of 2002. Two additional years of research on field-scale alfalfa production and demonstrations on these farm and ranch cooperator sites were needed to better determine the sustainability of alfalfa on Coastal Plain soils.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Greg Clary
  • Carlos Griffin
  • Vincent Haby
  • Joe Prud'homme
  • Herbert Riley
  • Joe Taylor

Research

Materials and methods:

Studies were initiated in the late 1980s to determine the factors that restricted alfalfa production on the Coastal Plain soils in the Piney Woods of East Texas. These soils, primarily in the Ultisol and Alfisol orders, are naturally acidic and require limestone to elevate soil pH into the range of 6.8 to 7.0 needed for alfalfa production. Boron becomes increasingly unavailable to clovers and alfalfa in limed acid soils. Even though the surface soil can be limed to the correct pH for alfalfa, aluminum levels in acid subsoil can be toxic to alfalfa roots. Subsoil acidity may be ameliorated by application of gypsum or limestone, but the desired effects of these treatments occur over an extensively long time. Soils in the Ultisol and Alfisol orders are highly leached and many are poorly drained. Poorly drained soils are excessively wet for alfalfa during extended periods of high rainfall. Soil factors that limit alfalfa production as listed previously necessitate that soils be carefully selected for good drainage and have a pH above 5.5 from below the limed surface layer into the four-foot depth. These were the major criteria used to select sites for alfalfa production on five ranches in Rusk, Gregg, Smith, Cherokee, and Anderson Counties. Each site was limed to raise surface soil pH to 7.0, disked to incorporate the limestone and eliminate bermudagrass, rolled to pack the soil for a firm seed bed, and sprayed with Roundup for additional control of bermudagrass where needed. Sites were fertilized with phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, and boron according to recommendations based on soil tests. Thirty-one acres of alfalfa were planted in early Dec. 1999 when rainfall provided adequate soil moisture for successful establishment. Each site was sprayed as needed for control of alfalfa weevil, leaf hopper, broadleaf weeds, and grasses. Yield estimates were clipped immediately before each hay harvest, oven-dried, ground, and analyzed for total nitrogen to estimate crude protein. Alfalfa was fertilized in late winter each year with a blend containing phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, and boron. Potassium also was applied after the second and forth cuttings with the annual application exceeding 350 lb/ac. Additional sulfur and magnesium were applied after the fourth cutting for total application rates of 150 and 75 pounds per acre, respectively. Soil factors that limit alfalfa production as listed previously made it necessary that sites be carefully selected

Research results and discussion:

Yield estimates from field-scale alfalfa studies indicate that production remained sustainable three and four seasons after planting the alfalfa. Total yields of 12% moisture hay were 6,822 lb/ac for Amerigraze and 6,847 lb/ac for GrazeKing in 2002, and 7,909 lb/ac for Amerigraze and 6,580 lb/ac for GrazeKing in 2003 on the Griffin Ranch.

Total yields of 12% moisture hay were 7,797 lb/ac for Amerigraze and 8,029 lb/ac for GrazeKing in 2002, and 6,301 lb/ac for Amerigraze and an 8,096 lb/ac for GrazeKing in 2003 on the Taylor Ranch.

Total yields of 12% moisture hay were 10,687 lb/ac for Amerigraze and 10,162 lb/ac for GrazeKing in 2002, and 9,405 lb/ac for Amerigraze and 8,623 lb/ac for GrazeKing in 2003 on the 7-P Ranch.

Total yields of 12% moisture hay were 3,317 lb/ac for Amerigraze and 3,830 lb/ac for GrazeKing in 2002, and 7,812 lb/ac for Amerigraze and an 7,193 lb/ac for GrazeKing in 2003 on the Riley Ranch. On this ranch, only two harvests were made in 2002 due to lack of proper harvest management.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Several publications including Field Day reports have been written based on these results:

A. Leonard, V. Haby, and G. Clary. 2004. Field-scale alfalfa production economics on Coastal Plain soils. Research Center Technical Report No. 2004-01.

V. Haby and A. Leonard. 2004. Alfalfa yields from field production on ranches participating in the sustainable agriculture research and education program. Research Center Technical Report No. 2004-01.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Yields of 12% moisture hay ranging to well above 5 tons/ac indicate that alfalfa can be successfully grown on properly selected soils of the eastern Texas Coastal Plain. These results can be extended across the southern and eastern US Coastal Plain.

Economic Analysis

Economic evaluation of these data indicate that annual net income on a per acre basis can exceed $300 when growing alfalfa valued at $135/ton on Coastal plain soils.

The two-year total estimated net return per acre for years three and four on the four sites ranged from $109.61 to $647.29 with the establishment costs prorated over four years. Several of these alfalfa fields have continued production into the fifth year. These data from field production verify the increased economic opportunity provided by production of alfalfa as a hay crop compared to the more important grass hay crops produced on the Coastal Plain soils of East Texas.

Farmer Adoption

Farmers appear to be slow in adopting this technology because of the ease of growing hybrid bermudagrasses that require much less careful attention to insect and weed control and simpler harvesting techniques.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Control of common bermudagrass in long-term alfalfa production systems, and selection of alfalfa varieties for production on Coastal plain soils need additional work.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.