This crop represents the smallest part of our income pie but it consumes a lot of my attention. I really enjoy growing it, the benefits to the soil by growing this special legume abound. For our overtaxed sod ground I turn to alfalfa to help us replenish our land.
We don’t skimp on fertilizers. A nutrient rich plant helps to keep your animals healthy, and vet bills down. This fact is particularly important for me - I feed what we grow. My sheep let me know they’re ready for more every morning. For our growing program we follow the advice of Dr. Harold Willis from his book How to Grow Great Alfalfa. He offers this, “For growing top quality forages, the soil’s available calcium should be higher than available phosphorus, and phosphorus should be higher than available potassium.
Phosphorus is a keystone nutrient in photosynthesis production. Plants are sugar factories, and you can actually measure the health of the plant by testing its sugar content with a refractometer. It’s super cool. And calcium benefits the plant in a number of ways, including its ability to enhance the plants uptake of trace minerals. Then, when you maintain your P:K ratio, and not let your potassium (K) get out of control, your weed pressure will be reduced. Also, K can replace Ca, and again we want Ca (Calcium).
Now, the previous paragraph is important, because as an alfalfa grower, we are always concerned with blister beetles, the little devil bug that can make your horse sick when consumed. Biting and chewing insects target plants that are unhealthy. So, our goal is to create a plant that is so nutritious/so high in sugars that unwanted bugs don’t find the crop palatable and they don’t stick around.
If all else fails, and driving the plant to a higher nutrient level doesn’t prevent blister beetles from coming in, we always have another tool - we can spray. We also inspect our fields at harvest, and if we encounter any blister beetle groupings, which are fairly easy to spot because they swarm, we will throw out that hay.
Now, with all of that said, the most important person in the process is you, inspect the bales as you feed them to your animals. Also, for owners of expensive horses, blister beetles typically are only around during the hot summer months - so I’d advise to seek out a first or second cutting or perhaps the last of the year, which for us comes in September.
Sorry to devote so much time to the blister beetle; historically speaking it was actually viewed as a beneficial insect. In medieval times, apothecary shops would sell said beetles mashed up to be added to tea. This was a precursor to viagra. ( I find that fascinating, so I thought I’d share that little piece of trivia.)
If you're as crazy about cover crops as I am I know you'll enjoy Dale's presentation. Join us, June 11.