Livestock producers across the region are all too familiar with alfalfa hay. The protein-packed, nutrient-dense forage crop is baled and then fed to animals, often during the cold winter months. Commonly, livestock producers also raise and harvest their own alfalfa hay, so there is a certain familiarity with the crop.
Like any plant, alfalfa of course must start as a seed. Although similar in some ways, growing alfalfa for seed production is more labor-intensive then growing it for forage, and ultimately the production goals are different, explained Cavin Steiger, president of the Montana Alfalfa Seed Growers Association (MASGA). For example, when seed production is the goal, farmers will plant at a lesser rate.
Since alfalfa cannot self-pollinate, the expertise of leaf cutter bees are employed to help the alfalfa plant reproduce. Steiger says a thick stand of alfalfa can be difficult for the bees to work.
“What is good for an alfalfa seed stand isn’t necessarily good for a hay stand and vice versa,” he pointed out.
Steiger is a natural leader for the MASGA as he grows about 140 acres of alfalfa seed on his land outside of Forsyth, Mont. In total, his operation consists of 3,500 dryland acres with an additional 1,200 acres under irrigation. To compliment his alfalfa seed production, Steiger raises his own leaf cutter bees while also offering custom pollenating services to other growers.
Another difference in the raising process, Steiger says, is the fact alfalfa grown for seed must be intensively-managed for pest and weed pressure, which means that chemicals must be used on the crop. Insecticides are applied at various times during the growing season to ensure pests like lygus bugs do not become detrimental to the seed production. Like in forage production, weevils must be managed, as well.
To add to the labor intensity of alfalfa seed production, soil active herbicides are applied either in the fall, prior to the plant entering dormancy, or in early spring, right before the plant breaks dormancy. The crop is virtually left alone during the pollenating period so as not to pressure the bees, but come late summer or early fall, once there is sufficient seed set, the crop is desiccated. After that process, the alfalfa seed is ready to be combined and sold.
Alfalfa seed production serves as a vital cornerstone to Montana’s ag economy. In fact, seed production in Montana began with alfalfa, and the Montana Seed Growers Association (MSGA) was originally formed in 1912 as a way to regulate the quality and production of alfalfa seed across the state. Since then, the MSGA has morphed to include all certified seed production in Montana, and the MASGA has been formed to specifically represent alfalfa seed growers and the issues they face as an industry.
“The main topic right now is the lack of contracts. There have been a few big crops that have been produced and seed sales have been down over the last few years, so there is a lot of alfalfa seed out there right now,” Steiger stated.
Steiger says there are several factors that have impacted seed sales, but ultimately it is a trickle-down effect. The whole ag economy is feeling pressure these days and producers are being forced to cut costs every chance they get. For alfalfa forage growers, stretching alfalfa stands for as long as they can is one way to mitigate expenses, which isn’t necessarily good for seed producers.
Steiger has seen how the lack of contracts has affected the entire alfalfa seed industry first-hand through his own production acres, but also through his custom pollenating business. He explained that two years ago he pollinated around 1,200 acres of alfalfa seed, including his own crop. Looking ahead to the 2020 season, Steiger estimates he will only be pollinating about 100 acres, in addition to this own.
“The alfalfa seed industry is prone to gluts, it’s kind of a cycle that we go through, so this isn’t an uncommon occurrence, but it is more extended then it has been in the past,” Steiger explained.
Under the helm of Steiger, the MASGA works to unify Montana’s alfalfa seed growers, helping them to find support and solidarity during these trying times. MASGA’s annual meeting for 2020 was held Feb. 19 in Billings. Growers who attended learned about topics pertinent to their industry, but they also gained edification about other crops and commodities.
“The past couple of years we have steered our agenda more toward learning about alternative crops and different things growers can do to weather through this downturn in the alfalfa seed industry,” said Steiger.
Despite the rough waters, Montana’s alfalfa seed growers remain resilient, and once the market rebounds, Steiger is confident Montana growers will be poised to pick up where they left off and continue growing top quality seed.