March 7, 2001 | By: Laura Skillman

Farmers from across Kentucky and several surrounding states attended the 21th annual alfalfa conference where problems and potentials of the forage crop were addressed.

The program is sponsored by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service and the Kentucky Forage and Grassland Council. Conference topics were selected from those in which farmers expressed interest.

Kentucky is only one of two states that hold an alfalfa conference, with California being the other. Alfalfa and other hays are major crops in the United States and Kentucky.

Kentucky ranks 7th nationally in total hay production and 27th in alfalfa hay production, said Neal P. Martin, director of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Wisc. Alfalfa hay is used in Kentucky for dairy cattle, horses, beef cattle, sheep and specialty markets.

Martin said growers need to market quality to the needs of the specific animal. High performing horses and dairy cattle require high quality hay that demands premium prices, he said.

Alfalfa is an excellent forage for dairy cattle, providing excellent energy and protein for the animals, said Donna Amaral-Phillips, extension dairy nutritionist. Quality is paramount for the dairy herd because it translates to milk production and farm profitability. For high-producing cows, the relative feed value of alfalfa should be over 150, she said. The quality of as little as 5 pounds of alfalfa hay can impact performance and profitability especially in early lactation cows.

A lot of alfalfa hay is brought into Kentucky from other states and this is an area where Kentucky farmers could capitalize on that market, Amaral-Phillips said.

"The thing you've got to realize is that a dairy cow is a high performance animal, very high performance," she said. "The dairy farmer is going to require quality. Quality directly impacts production and profitability, that's why it's very important that the dairy farmer have that quality."

In the horse industry, there are two segments. One is the premium, high performing animals and the other and largest number is the segment that contains horses used for pleasure. Cleanliness, color, cutting and convenience are mentioned when it comes to choosing hay, said Laurie Lawrence, UK animal scientist.

Cleanliness is vital because hay that contains dust or mold can inflame the horse's respiratory tract and can affect other systems as well such as the digestive system and the liver.

The horse industry continually has new owners who question what is best for their animals. Some horse owners believe alfalfa is the best for horses while others believe it is too rich for them. Nutritionally, new owners may come to the conclusion that high quality alfalfa hay is the best for their horses. That may not always be the case, she said.

It is the best for some horses especially for a lactating mare. It is also useful feed in rations for growing horses and broodmares. But with growing horses it is essential to balance the ration to provide adequate phosphorus, Lawrence said.

Feeding high quality alfalfa to mature horses that are not used for breeding or work may lower the amount of dry matter needed by the animal too much, causing the horse to seek out filler by chewing on fences, trees and barns. Conversely, feeding them enough high quality alfalfa to satisfy their need for filler can make them fat.

Some owners select strictly on price, but a better economic measure would be to consider cost of the hay, amount of wasted hay and cost of other feeds needed to make up for nutrients not supplied by the hay, Lawrence said.

Beef cattle also utilize alfalfa hay with generally lower quality bales. The forage is sometimes said to be too good for beef cattle, but dismissing its potential can be a mistake, said Roy Burris, UK Extension beef specialist.

Burris said alfalfa for beef cattle has potential as a creep feed or creep grazing area for suckling calves. It can also serve as a good food source during a postweaning conditioning period; as a protein source during the growing phase; a grazing crop for stocker calves and for well- milking beef cattle after calving.

Longtime alfalfa producer John Nowak of Christian County talked with conference attendees about how to be successful at producing alfalfa as a cash hay crop.

Nowak said whatever success he's enjoyed can be attributed to three principles: know your product, know your market and know your customer.

In knowing the product, Nowak said that means you have to know the quality. Having the hay tested to know exactly what you have to sell, he said. Quality is dependent on the production cycle - planting, growing, cutting, tending, raking, baling and moving it to storage - and the luck of the weather.

Knowing the market is more complex than one might think, Nowak said.

"We look at our market as three groups," he said.

First is the horse market, which demands clean, mold-free, good color alfalfa or alfalfa-grass mix with a consistent supply, he said. The second group is the dairy market. This market demands clean, mold-free, high protein, a high relative feed value and a sufficient supply.

The third group is the beef market. Hay that does not meet horse or dairy standards will often work well for beef cattle, he said. But Nowak said selling most of your alfalfa hay for beef cattle would not be profitable long-term.

"The worst thing in the world is to send the wrong product to the wrong market," he said. Your customer is the animal that eats the hay and the person who pays for the hay, Nowak said. You have to know and understand what the animal wants so it will aggressively eat your product.

Then you have to satisfy the human who's paying for the hay, he said. The main thing is to know your hay and describe it accurately. Then always deliver what you describe, he said.

Two final points that are necessary to a successful alfalfa hay business is storage and transportation.

Storage is needed to maintain good quality hay, he said.

"There's lots of ways to do this," Nowak said. "You can take old stock barns and convert them. You can take old burley barns and convert them. You can take sheds and use for either hay or machinery storage."

Transportation is necessary to get the hay to markets. Bale size is a factor in transportation and while heavier bales are better for transportation, quality suffers if they are too dense, he said.

"What I've found from my experience is 65 pound bales are the maximum density," he said. "If you get over that, you're going to start having troubles."


Donna Amaral-Phillips, (859) 257-7542; Roy Burris, (270) 365-7541; Laurie Lawrence, (859) 257-7509