UW Research and Extension Center conducting alfalfa trials

Posted 5/11/21

Every year, the Powell Research and Extension Center (PREC) north of Powell conducts a range of trials that provide valuable data that can help the agricultural industry, including local …

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UW Research and Extension Center conducting alfalfa trials

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Every year, the Powell Research and Extension Center (PREC) north of Powell conducts a range of trials that provide valuable data that can help the agricultural industry, including local farmers. 

Among the projects the center is working on this year is an alfalfa variety trial. Participating companies provided 29 varieties for the project, which includes 17 conventional and 12 Roundup-ready varieties. 

The goal of the project is to determine how the alfalfa varieties will fare when grown in the Big Horn Basin’s climate, with local water. The data from the project will let producers know which varieties will most likely work for their own needs. 

Each variety is replicated four times over the trial field. That way, if one spot has a thistle patch or some poor soil, there will be three other opportunities to gather data. 

“It eliminates the potential for bias,” explained Sam George, research associate at PREC. 

The trial was established last year and will continue into next year. For the purposes of the study, the Powell center uses a harvester that weighs the cuttings to get a 1-pound bag from each variety and their replications. Each of the samples are then analyzed in a lab, which will let producers know what to expect with the varieties the companies provide. 

“It’s a simple study, but we hope it’s valuable,” George said.

This kind of research would be difficult, if not impossible, for farmers to conduct. Dedicating the land, materials and labor into a trial that won’t create enough product to break even just isn’t feasible for farmers working on razor-thin margins. So, PREC conducts a number of studies every year to provide some useful data for the producers on varieties and practices that will have the best yield. 

In addition to the alfalfa trial, PREC’s project this year include an ongoing dry bean variety test, soil fertility management tests, sugar beet tests, barley variety evaluation, reduced tillage trials, weed control trials, wheatgrass seed production tests and a first-grains project involving spelt and emmer.

George did the planning for the alfalfa trial. He figured out what the trial would cost and developed a fee per entry price. He then approached companies to see if they were interested. 

Allied Seed LLC, Bayer, Forage Genetics International, La Crosse Seed, S&W Seed Company and Wilbur-Ellis Company Inc. signed on to participate, each providing seed varieties for the test. 

Alfalfa is grown for tonnage or for quality, George said, depending on the producer. Most dairy producers, for example, grow for quality, whereas beef and horse people typically are trying to find that sweet spot, where quality isn’t too low but they get enough tonnage to go through the winter.

Unlike other crop fields, which are rotated from year to year with different crops, fields planted with alfalfa are like lawns. The crop is a perennial legume, so it comes back every spring.

This also makes it difficult to get rid of. When an alfalfa field is used for another crop, the farmer has to grow something that can tolerate the kinds of herbicides used to kill any lingering alfalfa. This is especially challenging if the alfalfa variety is Roundup-ready — a variety that can withstand glyphosate treatments. 

“Alfalfa is a really strong plant,” George said. “If it didn’t have good feed value, it’d be just a terrible weed.”

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