alfalfa harvest

Deep in the dead of winter, farmers are already focusing on the alfalfa season, critical for providing cattle with their energy needs. A north-central Kansas hay grower company says one of their latest varieties of alfalfa is low-lignin.

“We’ve had the Roundup Ready variety, but switched to a more non-GMO variety. We bred some low-lignin varieties and we’re using a lot more of those, which our customers are asking for,” said Adam Robertson, hay production manager at Bestifor in Belleville, Kan.

Low-lignin offers more parts of the alfalfa to eat, and subsequently more forage for livestock. “The low lignin alfalfa is a bred gene that’s bred into the variety. The lignin is the part of the plant that makes the stem rigid and woody. Low lignin produces less lignin and allows alfalfa to produce more of the digestible parts of the plant, like the leaf and forage that cattle want, and can eat,” said Robertson.

Low-lignin also gives growers more days between cuttings. “So instead of waiting 28 days between cuttings, if you have rain, you don’t have to rush, because you can stretch time between cuttings to 35 days and still get the quality.”

Robertson says they planted it last year, so this year will be the first full year of low-lignin production. “We’ll see the fruits of our breeding, starting this year.”

Bestifor also now has an 80 acre field of organic hay near Belleville, and they expect to become certified organic by this summer 2019 to handle it. “Cattle and dairy producers are interested in learning about it. First, farmers and cattleman have been requesting the Non-GMO hay (not genetically modified organisms,) such as Roundup Ready, and interest has grown for the low-lignin. Some customers are also asking about organic alfalfa.

The key difference with organic alfalfa, Robertson says, will be cleaning all the equipment at timely intervals. “At some point, it’s good to clean all the equipment; it needs to be done anyway,” Robertson pointed out, “But now, we may have to do it, in the middle of the day.”

“We’ll put up the hay ­­the way we always put it up. We’re not spraying the organic alfalfa with anything, we’ll blow off all the headers, swathers, balers, and we won’t take our conventional dirt into the organic crop, so we’re not contaminating the product, and we’ll have paperwork documenting all that.”

Regarding dealing with alfalfa insects such as weevils, here’s how they’ll handle that with the organic alfalfa. “We just won’t spray for them. If we see weevil damage in the first cutting, we’ll just cut the crop, sooner,” relayed Robertson.

Bestifor is also growing and packaging large hay bales into small ones for the local company; Grandpa’s Best, which will then be sent to rabbit farms and others.

For the lowest moisture and relative humidity, Robertson’s favorite time to bale hay is in the evening. He also looks for opportunities to squeeze in a few morning hours.

“For baling hay, in a pinch I feel comfortable with the hay at 18 percent moisture, but I’d like it to be around 15 percent. For relative humidity, I like baling at 55-60 percent if that’s at the end of the day,” said Robertson. “If it’s morning, I like it at 40 percent. Love it in the morning. If it’s morning and we can sneak in a few hours, that’s okay, but evening is best.”

Bestifor also crimps hay to squeeze moisture out. “We run a crimper on the back of our swathers,” noted Robertson.

For a drill, Robertson says they use a John Deere 1890, and a packer-roller, too.

“We’re turbo tilling the ground, then we’re rolling it, and then we go in and drill it.”

Then they roll it again to firm the ground. “Alfalfa likes to have a very hard base,” Robertson said.

Although Robertson didn’t have a previous farming background, he quickly became savvy in the field, literally. “I was never in agriculture until after high school,” Robertson said.

He enjoys the challenge and supplying the demand for alfalfa. “I like when you have to chase the alfalfa,” Robertson said. “It doesn’t work for you; it’s never easy and it’s always different.”

Amy Hadachek can be reached at