Bales of alfalfa hay dot Nebraska’s rural landscapes. They’re so common, in fact, that most people probably don’t take notice while driving down the highway. However, alfalfa – raised by farmers for commercial forage production – is one of Nebraska’s top crops, with farmers harvesting a whopping 3.4 million tons in 2015.
Nebraska is a national leader in commercial alfalfa production, ranking No. 4 in the nation.
“Alfalfa is a huge product for Nebraska that doesn’t get a lot of news or attention,” says Erik Peterson, who farms 1,000 acres of alfalfa, 800 acres of corn and 200 acres of sugar beets near Gering with his dad, Greg, and brother, Davin. “It takes a lot of knowledge and equipment, but over time it has been our family’s most profitable crop. If you produce high-quality alfalfa, you’re rewarded because there’s always a market for it somewhere in the U.S.”
Alfalfa, which is a legume and rich in protein, is primarily produced as a food source for dairy and beef cattle. Farmers send samples of alfalfa they grow to labs to determine its quality, and that level of quality determines where it ends up.
“If it is really high-quality alfalfa, it’s sold to dairies because dairy cows require the high quality to maximize their milk production,” Peterson says. “The medium- or low-quality alfalfa goes to feedlots to be ground up and mixed with grains or corn to feed cattle according to the animals’ dietary needs.”
From Plant to Bale
Farmers plant the perennial seed in spring or fall and need ample moisture in order to make sure the seed germinates. A classical rotation involves alternating a legume like alfalfa or clover with a crop like corn or wheat.
“We live in an arid climate, so our farm is all irrigated,” Peterson says. “If you plant in spring, it takes 50 to 60 days to get the first cutting. We cut it right when it starts to form buds because that results in higher quality. During a normal season, we’re cutting every 28 to 30 days, about three or four times per year through the summer. It smells really good when you’re done cutting it.”
The cut alfalfa is placed in windrows, or long lines of raked hay laid out to dry in the wind.
“We mow the standing crop and place it in a windrow. This is all one process,” says Carl Simmons, an alfalfa producer near Valentine. “The windrows are allowed to dry to about 13 percent moisture or less. Then we wait until the dew comes on and the moisture rises to about 16 percent. If this happens, we bale the hay. It’s not a science that can be predicted – there are many variables.”
The moisture content is critical because too much moisture could cause the hay bales to spoil. Peterson says they can usually bale the hay within four to seven days if the weather is nice.
“We bale it into 3-by-4-by-8-foot square bales that are designed to ship on flat-bed trailers to feedlots or dairies. The bales weigh 1,500 pounds apiece,” he says. “If we plan to store them, we stack them in hay sheds or tarp them.”
Marketing Nebraska Alfalfa
Some of Nebraska’s alfalfa hay stays in state, while a large portion is exported.
“The typical market for square bales going outside Nebraska is from the Rocky Mountains east,” says Barb Kinnan, executive director of the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association. “We have had producers ship hay to most every state east of that line, including Maine and Florida and every state in between.”
Colorado has been a profitable market for Nebraska’s alfalfa producers in recent years, thanks to a tremendous growth in the number of dairies there.
“Colorado has a huge cheese plant in Greeley that makes mozzarella cheese for national pizza chains, for example,” Peterson says.
Cows fed high-protein Nebraska alfalfa are producing some of the milk used to make the cheese.
Not every bale of hay you see along a Nebraska country road is made of alfalfa. Farmers also produce grass and meadow hay, and Nebraska ranks No. 7 nationwide in the “Other Hay” category.
“You can usually tell by the shape of the bale what type of hay it is,” Peterson says. “Round bales are mostly grass hay for local markets. The large square bales are more for commercial alfalfa operations like ours, because they’re easier to ship on trucks.”