Alfalfa remains one of the primary forage crops in dairy and livestock production as well as an expensive crop to plant and manage. That is why it is very important to note the steps of planting alfalfa before you start. Have it in mind that Alfalfa does well on well-drained soils rather than wet, heavy clay soils and requires good soil pH ranging from 6.5 to 7.0. If the soil pH is lower than 6.5, liming is required to increase it to its optimum level to enable better nutrient uptake.

According to experts, each harvested dry matter ton of alfalfa removes approximately 11 pounds of P2O5 and 53 pounds of K2O. For good and pure alfalfa stands, 18 to 20 pounds per acre should be planted. For mixed stands with grass, 15 to 16 pounds per acre is advisable. For broadcast seeding, seeding rates ought to be increased by 10 to 20 percent.

Also, for spring seeding, weed control is very necessary to limit seeding failure from severe weed pressure. For conventional planting, pre – emergence herbicide, such as Eptam or Chateau, can be incorporated into the soil before planting. But for no-till planting, only post-emergence herbicides, such as Raptor, Pursuit, or Select can be used.

According to reports, conventional tillage is a more acceptable planting method for flat and uniform fields than no-till planting, which is for rocky or steep slopes. Note that tillage can allow lime and fertilizer to be incorporated into the soil that promotes good stand establishment.

Always remember that having a firm seedbed is very pertinent to good seed – soil contact, and as a rule of thumb, an adult’s foot hill should be about ¼” to ½” deep. Either cultipacker type seeders or a grain drill can be used for a conventional tillage for planting alfalfa.

Estimated Cost of Planting an Acre of Alfalfa in the United States

Establishing good stands of alfalfa can be done by proper site selection, seeding rate, weed control and planting method. However, the cost of planting and maintaining an Acre of Alfalfa goes beyond these factors. Below is an estimated cost of planting and successfully harvesting Alfalfa in the United States.

  1. Establishment Costs

  2. Land Preparation

Note that stand establishment starts with discing down (stubble disc) the residue from the previous crop. The ground is chiselled to a depth of 18 to 24 inches to fracture the soil, which improves root penetration and water infiltration. Then the field is then rolled with a rice roller. After that the field is laser levelled at a cost of $175 per acre. Lastly, the field is disked and harrowed with a ring roller to prepare the seedbed.

3. Fertilization

Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) as 11 – 52 – 0 at 200 pounds per acre of material tend to be applied by a custom operator in September prior to the final discing. Note that pre – plant soil testing for phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) is advisable.

4. Planting

Most operators plant Roundup Ready alfalfa seed with Brillion seeders 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch deep at 25 pounds of seed per acre. The seed is planted in September or October and the stand life is expected to be three years. Cost of seed varies; Roundup Ready seed cost at least $5.84 per pound with an additional $3.00 per pound tech fee.

5. Irrigation

The most common irrigation method is sprinkler irrigation during establishment, followed by border flood irrigation during production. Water for seed germination is applied using a sprinkler irrigation system in early fall immediately after planting (8 acre – inches). If winter rains do not occur, a second irrigation may be necessary. Water is supplied by the irrigation and is supplemented by well water.

Prices for water vary considerably among irrigation districts and pumping costs vary due to well depth, pumping level and type of irrigation system. Estimate $130 per acre – foot, ($10.83 per acre – inch). Irrigation labour will also be provided as a separate line item and includes the cost of setting up and taking down the sprinkler irrigation system.

6. Pest Management

Pest control costs and vary considerably each year depending upon local conditions and pest populations in any given year. Adjuvant is recommended for many pesticides for effective control and is an added cost. Also note that written recommendations are required for many pesticides and are available from licensed pest control advisors. In addition, the PCA or an independent consultant will monitor the field for agronomic problems including irrigation and nutrition.

After planting, treatment of alfalfa with pesticides are made by either chemigation (pesticides and/or fertilizers applied through the irrigation water), by tractor or ATV mounted ground/boom sprayer, or foliar – broadcast by airplane. Some pesticides and fertilizers are mixed and applied together during the same irrigation.

7. Production Operating Costs

8. Water Requirement

During the production years, most growers use border flood irrigation. The water is pumped through alfalfa valves at the head of the field and flows down the alfalfa check between the borders. A semi – permanent drain ditch is dug at the edge of the field using a V – Ditcher pulled by a tractor.

The actual water requirement will vary each year based on soil, climatic, and plant physiological factors. Irrigation includes the water and pumping costs, with irrigation labour provided as a separate line item.  Water costs tend to vary considerably depending upon the irrigation district and, when pumped, upon the due to well depth, pumping level and type of irrigation system. Estimate a cost of $10.83 per acre – inch ($130 per acre – foot).

9. Fertilization

After establishment, plant tissue tests are taken each year to determine nutrient requirements. Tissue samples are expected to be scheduled once during the growing season and your Ag consultant (PCA) may recommend this be done in either the spring or fall. Estimated cost for the analysis based on one sample per acre collected by the PCA is estimated at $25.90 per sample. For the sake of this article, an allocation of phosphorous as 11 – 52 – 0, at 200 pounds per acre is charged to the field in the fall of each year. Subsequent micronutrient fertilizers are applied as needed from tissue analysis and PCA recommendations.

10. Harvest

For the sake of this article, the alfalfa can be custom harvested for hay nine times – March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October and November. Alfalfa for hay is cut with a self – propelled swather and left to dry for several days before it is turned and windrowed using a rake. Once the hay has dried to the correct moisture content, it is baled into 125 – pound bales.

The bales are picked up with a bale wagon that moves them from the field and roadsides them in a stack. You can choose to use a harvesting company or even do it yourself. Custom harvest services are swathing and raking for $22.50 per acre, baling for $1.10 per bale and road siding for $0.60 per bale. In total, this is an approximate cost of $40.10 per ton for swathing/raking and baling with a roadside charge of $9.50 per ton for 125# bales.

11. Labour, Equipment and Interest

12. Labour

Estimate labour rates at $20.44 per hour for machine operators and $17.52 for general labour which includes payroll overhead of 46 percent. The basic hourly wages can be estimated at $14.00 for machine operators and $12.00 for general labour. The overhead includes the employers’ share of federal and state payroll taxes, workers’ compensation insurance for field crops and a percentage for other possible benefits. Workers’ compensation costs will vary among growers.

13. Equipment Operating Costs

Repair costs tend to be based on purchase price, annual hours of use, total hours of life, and repair coefficients formulated by American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE). Fuel and lubrication costs are mostly determined by ASAE equations based on maximum power takeoff (PTO) horsepower, and fuel type. The cost includes a 9.25 percent sales tax on diesel fuel and 2.25 percent sales tax on gasoline. Prices for on – farm delivery of diesel and gasoline are $2.38 and $2.65 per gallon, respectively. Gasoline also includes federal and state excise tax, which can be refunded for on – farm use when filing your income tax. The fuel, lube, and repair costs per acre for each operation are determined by multiplying the total hourly operating cost for each piece of equipment used for the selected operation by the hours per acre. Tractor time is 10 per cent higher than implement time for a given operation to account for setup, travel and maintenance.

14. Cash Overhead

Cash overhead more or less include various cash expenses paid out during the year that are assigned to the whole farm, not to a particular operation. Employee benefits, payroll taxes and workers’ compensation insurance are included in labour costs and not under cash overhead.

  • Property Taxes

Most counties in the United States charge a base property tax rate of 1 per cent on the assessed value of the property. In some counties, special assessment districts exist and charge additional taxes on property including equipment, buildings, and improvements.

  • Insurance

Insurance for farm investments varies depending on the assets included and the amount of coverage. Property insurance provides coverage for property loss and is charged at 0.834 per cent of the average value of the assets over their useful life. Liability insurance covers accidents on the farm and costs $638 for the entire farm.

  • Office

Costs are estimated at $50 per acre and are not based on any specific information, except that there is a cost involved for bookkeeping, payroll, and tax preparation and communication systems.

  • Land

Cropland with district water suitable for alfalfa production typically ranges in value from $15,000 to $25,000 per acre. Small farms (50 acres and less) tend to have higher land costs than farms over 50 acres. Cropland with district water rents for $300 per acre and rents may vary according to value or type of crop planted.

Conclusion

Costs to plant an acre of alfalfa are used to determine capital recovery expenses, depreciation, and interest on investment, during the production years. The establishment cost is the sum of cash costs for land preparation, planting, and cash overhead for establishing the alfalfa. Using the analysis above, the total cost for an alfalfa acre is estimated at $48,133 per acre, including the cost of land.

Ajaero Tony Martins