Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Can we still buy good old “vernal” alfalfa?

“Vernal” and “cheap” have become almost synonymous terms for the basic, commodity alfalfa seed that could be bought at a lower price from your local elevator and seemed to survive more seasons than newer higher yielding varieties.

However, “Vernal” was in fact a specific variety, one of the four or five improved alfalfa varieties that developed from the first land-grant plant breeding experiments.

“Vernal” as a variety was developed by University of Wisconsin in the 1950s and became very popular in the upper Midwest because Wisconsin’s climate (including winter) and its glacial soil varieties were so similar to lots of midwestern states, including Michigan.

The name came from the “vernal equinox”, as an alfalfa that went fully dormant at a time in the late fall and did not awaken again until well past the first cool thawing spring days.

This was a meaningful characteristic, as alfalfa is originally from temperate, arid parts of the world that never experienced a Wisconsin (or Michigan) winter.    The original plant scientists had to find plants that would go dormant for winter and keep the root alive to regrow next spring.    Thus, “vernal” we could grow north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Our grandfathers all asked for “vernal” seed, and because it was cheaper than the newer patented cultivars that came into focus in the 1970s and after (once it became possible to patent a plant variety), we developed the idea that “vernal” meant “generic”.

This is “patently” untrue.    Basically, “vernal” was a variety developed before patenting, and given gratis to the alfalfa breeding world by University of Wisconsin.    In fact, there are still many seed companies (primarily in Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa) who are active in Vernal Alfalfa propogation, and tend to sell seed direct to the farmers seeking it.  (You can find them easily by searching for “Vernal Alfalfa” on any internet Search Engine.)

The biggest surprise is – the price

In spite of being a non-patented variety, and in spite of the higher annual production from the many newer patented varieties of alfalfa, “vernal” alfalfa now sells for a minimum of $3.00 per pound of seed, at the grower’s farm warehouse.

Thus, when your local seed source quotes improved varieties of patented higher yield and disease resistant alfalfa, and no longer handles a “cheap vernal”, the real reason is – if I cannot sell it cheaper, why not sell something that will yield better and test higher?

Most improved patented varieties will sell for $4.00 to $6.00 per pound, with the newest (the first true “hybrid” alfalfas) bringing $7.00 per pound.   (I have no idea what Roundup Ready alfalfa costs, because unlike Monsanto, I do not believe “grass is a weed” and find the highest feed testing and yielding hay and haylage is made from mixed seedings: grass and alfalfa, maybe a bit of clover thrown in as well.)  
Thus, if you are paying over $3.00 per pound plus freight to buy “vernal” alfalfa, and get 20% less protein and up to 30% less yield per acre than you would get from new varieties that seeding better last twice as long in order to break even against the cost of standouts like Kingfisher 444… which, by the way, has a branch rooted character making it more able to deal with wet feet than those first “improved” varieties Grandpa rejected.

Why do alfalfa stands have such shorter lives today?

We have accepted a generalization that was based on our inability to adapt our practices to the requirements of a higher yielding crop variety.

If you milk cows, you know that the higher genetic potential cows have to be fed more to produce more, and have to be fed a balanced ration to stay healthy while sustaining yield through more calvings for a longer lifetime.    Likewise, if you feed steers, you know that the higher growth potential steer also needs to be fed more and what you feed needs to be higher energy for the growth to occur in a shorter period of feeding time.

Consistent with all nature, higher yield alfalfas are just like the animals that eat it—need to be “fed” more and the soil has to stay in elemental “balance”.

Most of us grew up with advice that to grow lots of alfalfa, you keep your pHs in a range close to 6.8-7.0, and then all you need are Phosphorus and Potassium (Potash).     This was true as far as it went, but everyone overlooked the primary element nearly all plants take up is Calcium.      For animal farms growing alfalfa, using manure as a fertilizer, the problems became particular to a simple fact:    Calcium and Phosphorus taken off fields by cows (or harvested and fed to cows) leaves the soil as milk and bones, while Potash and Magnesium used by their organs returns in the urine and manure to the soil.   Over time, while the sum total of these mineral elements keeps the pH fairly constant, Calcium and to a lesser extent Phosphorus are slowly depleted.     Even when Ca and P levels are present, an excess of the Potassium and Magnesium elements will “chelate” (bind) to the remaining Calcium and Phosphorus, making it less available for the plant growth.

Thus, Vernal, which had a more moderate production yield profile, used to persist longer, but today is no more likely than a high potential alfalfa to persist if we are not replacing soil Calcium (and protecting elements like Phosphorus as well as Sulfur, which keeps the energy density higher in the plant tissue).    For those using animal manure as fertilizer a cheap way to do this is to buy “Gypsum Lime” (a higher sulfur content powdered lime) and put some on any time you have tilled up a residue field to establish a new seeding.
The other aspect that is shortening stand life is our tendency to take added cuttings.   The high yield oriented farmer will cut early, cut every 28 days, and cut late in the fall (after the “hessian fly” date) with a goal of five cuttings per season.    Grandpa was always in a good mood if we made three good cuttings, and his stands lasted longer (but a lot of feed was left in the fields each fall, as “bait” for all the wild game species hunted in winter).
Alfalfa roots need to have a high reserve of stored energy to be vigorous in the spring.

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