Forage variety selection really pays

Wise selection of perennial forage varieties is the investment return that keeps on giving and giving.

Now that the value of hay crops has regained its competitive edge against other agricultural crops, farms are actually thinking of seeding more forage crops in 2013. If we value alfalfa hay at a conservative $160 per ton in 2013, the crop has the potential of profiting over $200 per acre which brings it in line with the grain crops for profit potentials. However that profitability can be enhanced even more when the right varieties are planted.

For perennial crops that can produce in a field for four years or longer like alfalfa, proper variety selection becomes much more important than for annual crops. For an annual like corn, if you plant a poor performing variety one year, you simply will not purchase it the following year. With alfalfa the planting costs run above $400 per acre and you want the stand to stay in production as long as it is generates more profit than other crops. In reality, how do we really know if an alfalfa stand is yielding above or below other varieties we could have planted? Unless there was another variety planted at the same time on a similar soil type on the farm, you’ll never know if you could have done better.

That’s where unbiased university varietal trials come into play to help farmers see what the potential differences are and then to help them select varieties with better yield potential. Granted yield is not everything. Other factors like disease and insect resistance, feed quality, longevity and other items also factor into picking the optimum forage variety, but in reality, yield over a set number of years is the best measure we currently have to estimate profitability.

The differences are significant when we put economic values to the yield results. Looking at the Michigan State University Forage Varietal Trials for 2012, we can see that in one trial which was seeded in East Lansing in 2008, the yield difference from the top yielding alfalfa variety and the lowest yielding variety was 7.89 tons of dry matter per acre over a three year harvest period. This equates out to a 9.4 ton difference when we adjust the hay to typical 16 percent moisture hay. If we assume a hay value of $160 per ton over the three years this is a difference of $1,504 per acre, or $501 per acre per year. Now assuming that we may achieve this same annual difference over five years (the average life of an alfalfa stand in Michigan – dairy and livestock farms included) that equates out to $2,505 per acre over the five years. Taking it one assumption farther, if the average alfalfa field in Michigan is 30 acres in size, over the five year life of the stand the difference between selecting the best variety and the lowest yielding variety – which in this trial example was the public variety of Vernal – the value would be a whopping $75,150! The only difference in this example is the selection of the variety that was planted.

Granted, there will be some additional costs associated with the higher yielding varieties such as cost of seed, more fertilizer used because the yield is greater, more harvesting, hauling and labor expenses, but still these extra costs may only diminish the gross value by 10 - 20 percent. We are still looking at over $60,000 more by picking out the best alfalfa variety. Even if in the past you were fairly good at selecting some of the better alfalfa varieties, the difference between some of the good and the best varieties could mean $5,000 to $10,000 more on a 30 acre field over five years.

How do you select the best varieties? The MSU Forage Varietal Trial reports have information on alfalfa variety traits along with the un-biased, Michigan-specific trial data for alfalfa varieties from 37 different seed marketers across the Midwest. Start there and then talk to seed dealers determining your need for disease and insect resistance, and paying particular attention to longevity if your system requires it. Dairy farms typically want alfalfa stands to last for 3 - 5 years where as livestock and hay cash crop farms want the stand to last for as long as it is profitable, usually 7 - 10 years or longer. Finally, and most importantly, look at the yield date of local, unbiased trials over time to see how they performed. Granted the newest varieties will not have yield data available for at least three years, but unless you like to invest in commodity trading or at a casino, do not invest your entire forage seeding dollar in new varieties. Use some of the highest yielding tried and true varieties that meet your farm goals, along with maybe a small portion being a sampling of a new, un-tested variety.

There is no foolproof system to select alfalfa or other forage legume or grass varieties. However, if you do your homework and consider analytical trial data in your selection process, the financial returns can be substantial for perennial forage crops.

For more information, contact Michigan State University Extension educators Kim Cassida at 517-355-0271 or at; Phil Kaatz at 810-667-0341 or at; or Jerry Lindquist at 231-832-6139 or at

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