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Texas Agriculture Archive

May 17, 2002

A new cash crop for East Texas?


By Mike Barnett

Carlos and Margaret Griffin are in their third season of growing alfalfa at their operation near Kilgore, and so far, they like what they see.

"It definitely has a place," Carlos Griffin says of his eight acre patch. "We're hurting for a cash crop in East Texas. The few people that grow horse hay do a pretty good job with a cash crop. The alfalfa will fill that bill and also be good for cattle.

"You go to a store and buy alfalfa now, one square bale will cost you right at $10. I've been selling it right behind the planter for $4. Once I put it in the barn I get anywhere from $6 to $7 per bale for it."

And he's selling all he wants, with no advertising, relying instead on word of mouth.

The Griffins established their plot, financed by a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research Education) grant three years ago as a test established by Dr. Vincent Haby and other Extension scientists at the Research Center in Overton. The Griffins have one of five test plots located in five East Texas counties.

Last year, following Haby's recommendations, these ranchers harvested from a low of about 3.6 tons to nearly 4.5 tons of alfalfa dry matter per acre. The Griffins, in their first year of production (according to Dr. Haby's figures) averaged 4.47 tons per acre.

But the value of any cash crop is in the money made. The Griffin's first year net income was $397.14 per acre.

"I know of no other agronomic forage crop where the return can be as high as $400 per acre," Haby says.

However, Carlos says, raising alfalfa isn't for everyone in East Texas. For one thing, it's very site specific.

"The pH has to be in the neighborhood of 6.5 to 7 and it needs to go all the way down, four feet," he says, noting that alfalfa has a very deep root system. "And if your pH is low, down to four feet, the subsoils of East Texas have a high content of aluminum...and at a low pH level, the aluminium acts as a poison to the alfalfa. You have to keep the pH up to keep the aluminum from being active."

The site Carlos chose to plant had been limed over a period of years, and the normally acidic East Texas soil there had a good pH all the way down.

He planted the alfalfa in the fall, drilling the seed into a good, clean seed bed. Although alfalfa would normally be planted in October, the moisture situation wasn't good enough for planting until December.

"It came up, existed all winter, and started growing in the spring," Carlos says. "And it's been growing ever since."

Although it's more expensive to establish than Coastal, as a legume, alfalfa doesn't require any expensive nitrogen fertilizer.

"That fills a void here in East Texas because we have clover we grow in the winter. But we don't have any warm weather legumes that are beneficial for haying or grazing. This alfalfa fills that void there that we had before," Carlos says.

Alfalfa also requires more extensive management than Coastal. It requires phosphate, potash, sulfur and magnesium from one to three times a year, depending on how often it is cut. It also has a couple of weed and insect problems.

For example, native bermuda is hard to control in alfalfa. Carlos has found Poast does a good job on ryegrass, not so good on the common bermuda. He's also having problems this year with a cool season weed called Curly dock. Again Poast was used successfully on other weeds, but with little control on the dock.

"Some of these weeds exist in the soil for so long you can't get rid of them before you plant. They become a problem after you establish a stand," Carlos says. "That's a problem we've run into."

The main insect problem is the alfalfa weevil, which can be controlled with Sevin, that attacks the growing point of the alfalfa in the spring. A minor insect problem is a leaf hopper that girdles the bottom of the stem.

Still, Carlos feels the more intensive management is worth the effort.

Alfalfa is versatile, he says, because it can be either hayed or grazed. Last April Carlos stripped grazed the alfalfa with young pairs. The problem with strip grazing, he admits, is by the time you get across the whole patch, the first strip you grazed is ready to go again. Then, if you decide to bale it, the alfalfa is not the same height.

Still, he sees great possibilities for young cattle that can utilize alfalfa's high protein levels (at 10 percent bloom—the ideal time to bale alfalfa— protein levels will run anywhere from 18 to 22 percent). He hasn't seen any bloat problems, a possible problem with grazing alfalfa.

"It's excellent grazing," Carlos says.

Carlos is waiting a couple more years before recommending that others try the crop. For one thing, he wants to see how long a stand will last. In the western states, where alfalfa is grown for hay, it is normally replanted very five or six years.

"Here, that's one of the questions we're trying to answer: How long will this stand last? In our climate, they really don't know."

If things keep going well, however, he'll consider expanding acreage.

"If I have more sites that lend themselves to alfalfa production, I'll consider putting it in," he says.