Alfalfa is one of the major forage crops in the western U.S. Many farmers and ranchers buy seed from companies that offer numerous varieties – old and new – that have been selected for production, hardiness and sometimes ability to withstand grazing.

Thomas heather
Freelance Writer
Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

Weber Family Farms, near Parma, Idaho, has been growing alfalfa seed for several generations. Craig Weber’s father and grandfather started growing alfalfa seed in the mid-1960s, as did many other farms in that region. “Some varieties work well in mountainous areas like Idaho, and some work best in different climates and elevations,” Weber says.

Alfalfa seed crops depend on bees for pollination. “Honeybees don’t like to pollinate alfalfa because when the flower is tripped it hits them in the face. Honeybees learn to use their long tongue to gather the honey without tripping the flower. We need leafcutter bees to trip the flower, but it’s a challenge keeping them going. If we didn’t have these bees, we wouldn’t have a seed crop,” he explains.

Some of the pesticides traditionally used on farm crops to deter insects that damage plants are harmful to bees as well. Newer chemicals are geared toward the way certain insects eat, destroying their mouth pieces. There are many beneficial insects that farmers don’t want to kill, such as ladybugs (that prey on harmful insects) and bees. “Sprays today are more species specific and gentler on the bees. Our population return of bees for the next year is now a lot higher, though we also buy some Canadian bees to make sure we have enough,” Weber says. Canada doesn’t have as many bee diseases as Idaho, Washington and Oregon, and those bees are able to reproduce at a higher rate.

The alfalfa seed is marketed to several companies through contracts. “Companies want specific varieties. We also raise common varieties we grow for them or grow on our own to sell. We grow four or five varieties that we like to rotate. Some are traditional ones that the old ranchers and cowboys really like because they do well and have stood the test of time,” he explains.

56404-thomas-1.jpgAlfalfa seed comes out of the rice roll machine. Photo provided by Ernie Johnson.

Hayes Goosey (extension forage specialist, Montana State University) says the Western Alfalfa Seed Growers Association has several growers in Montana, and the Montana delegate is Ernie Johnson, who grows cultivars that do well in this area.

“There is a lot of value in having a local seed producer so ranchers who buy seed can have assurance it will work in their climate and soil. Having seed growers in different areas is a good thing,” says Goosey.

When selecting seed, one of the things to pay attention to is fall dormancy rating. “There are different growth zones. You need to match this with your production. The lower the fall dormancy, the less regrowth you get, and the higher the fall dormancy, the more regrowth. Typically Montana is in a 3 to 4 fall dormancy zone, so producers would be more interested in those cultivars,” he says.

The northern part of Montana is mostly zone 3, the rest of the state is a 3 to 4, and in southwestern Montana it might be a 5. “This determines how quickly it goes dormant, to protect the plants from early spring frost by not greening up too soon, or from an early fall frost when plants have not yet built up sufficient root reserve,” he says.

There are some grazing-tolerant cultivars; many ranchers in the Western states want to graze the aftermath after the final hay harvest. “Those types of alfalfa have the crown set below the surface, so there is less problem with split crowns from hoof action,” Goosey explains. There is less damage from trampling and issues with root rot. Those diseases get in through a split crown. Some ranchers select alfalfa types that have fewer issues with bloat.

To grow alfalfa, it is crucial to have pollinators. “Many seed growers develop their own leafcutter bee system and try to keep the habitat good for those bees. They not only have to figure out how they will grow seed but also how to get that crop pollinated. Alfalfa is dependent on a bee for pollination, whereas grasses are wind pollinated and don’t need insects to carry the pollen,” explains Goosey.

Ernie Johnson has been raising alfalfa seed for 40 years in the Milk River area of Montana between Chinook and Harlem. “This area grows predominantly alfalfa hay. Originally, we were growing seed for the big companies, and then it became increasingly difficult to get contracts. Now we market seed ourselves, growing certified public varieties rather than proprietary varieties from seed companies,” he says.

Johnson grows varieties that are well adapted to this region. “It is important to grow varieties that are winter hardy and can stand grazing pressure. The new varieties also have quick recovery. One fellow from Nashua, Montana, told me he purchased seed for one of those new varieties a few years ago, and the second cutting harvested 3 tons per acre and had nice, fine stems and [was] very palatable; the cows just loved it. This is a product developed by Montana State University research, and it’s a public variety that anybody can plant, raise, certify and sell.”

56404-thomas-2.jpgErnie Johnson installs conveyor belts on a rice roll machine for alfalfa seed. Photo provided by Ernie Johnson.

Johnson is one of very few producers who does this. “Most seed growers want to market through a big company, but this can be a struggle. Marketing has always been the big issue for agriculture,” he says. Most producers do a great job of growing but a poor job of marketing.

“The Montana Seed Growers have a checkoff system: With every sale, a half penny from each dollar goes into a seed commission administered by growers and other people in the seed industry, and we determine how the money is spent – for marketing, research and promotion of alfalfa seed. I think 150,000 dollars was invested in new varieties. Melton is the variety I grow, but there are others like Shaw that came out of that research,” he says.

“There is one proprietary variety a friend of mine bought, and he is marketing a lot of it back east in dairy areas. I market all of mine locally, mostly here in Montana. One of these is Prairie Star, used in many Western states,” Johnson says.

He also has his own leafcutter bees and has a system in which he replaces bees every year to make sure he has enough. “I nest the bees into what we call a solid block system, then move those blocks to Boise, Idaho – where the seed-growing business originated. It spread from the Boise valley into Wyoming and Montana,” Johnson says.

“I still raise bees for one grower in Idaho. He sends me his drilled boards, and we sanitize them and nest clean Canadian bees into them one year, then send them back to Idaho. He determines how many live bees there are in a block, and pays me based on the number of live bees. I buy more Canadian bees each year. This maintains the vitality of our bee population,” he says.

The alfalfa seed business is a dwindling industry. “We probably had 80 producers in Montana at one time and about 20 now. We generally have a Montana winter seed school in February. The drought has been hard on farmers and ranchers, however, with hay scarce and high priced.”

For anyone thinking about growing alfalfa seed, he recommends attending one of their seed schools. Find someone who is doing it, who can give advice for your area. “The Canadian folks who raise bees can also help. There is a lot of support, and if you get a contract with a big company, they will also provide help with a field man.”