Click the link to read the white paper on the Family Farm Alliance website (Dan Keppen and Mike Wade). Here’s an excerpt:
Alfalfa is often the target of journalists and some critics of irrigated agriculture who frequently rely upon simplistic explanations to heap scorn upon growing a forage crop in the West, particularly in times of drought. The attack on alfalfa has intensified in the wake of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton’s June 14, 2022 appearance before a Senate committee, where she called on water users across the Colorado River Basin to take actions to prevent Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.
When the states failed to meet the mid-August deadline set by Commissioner Touton for them to propose 15% to 30% cuts to their water use, critics of irrigated agriculture ramped up their focus on the perceived easy “fix” to the complicated challenges facing the Colorado River: stop growing crops that they believe use lots of water….like alfalfa.
The “shot across the bow” against alfalfa production was fired by the witness who testified immediately after Commissioner Touton at the June 14th Senate hearing. The general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), whose member agencies serve more than 2.2 million residents in Southern Nevada, summarized the impressive urban efforts to reduce per-capita water use and further suggested that farmers reconsider growing crops like alfalfa. The solution, he said, is working toward “a degree of demand management previously considered unattainable.”
He also noted that SNWA is planning to serve a population that will swell to 3.8 million by 2072.
In August, SNWA followed up with a strongly worded letter to the Biden administration, demanding action on several fronts, including creating “beneficial use criteria for Lower Basin water users, eliminating wasteful and antiquated water use practices and uses of water no longer appropriate for this Basin’s limited resources”.
In the following weeks, a steady stream of media coverage, including a 1,600-word essay in High Country News, have carried a similar message: Growing less hay is the only way to keep the Colorado River’s water system from collapsing.
Some journalists love going after crops that use lots of water. Almond growers in California’s Central Valley were subjected to a merciless multi-year “one almond uses one gallon of water” campaign during the last “unprecedented” drought that hit the Golden State in the last decade.
Guess what? Years later, Central Valley farmers still grow them because consumers around the globe love almonds and consume them in mass quantities for their great taste and dense nutritional punch.
Simplistic examinations of alfalfa in terms of water demand vs. supply must be enhanced and balanced with discussion of productivity, economic return, food production, and the environment to be truly productive. A former Imperial Irrigation District (IID) board member once said that the definition of a low-value crop is one that’s grown with the water someone else wants.
On behalf of the California Farm Water Coalition and the Family Farm Alliance, we offer this brief bit of continuing education to help you understand the rest of the story about alfalfa production in the Colorado River Basin and other parts of the American West.
Alfalfa 101: The Rest of the Story
The alfalfa sales pitch is a good one, because there’s such a good story behind it. That’s not just a load of hay you see rumbling by on Western highways during summer months. Those hay bales form the foundation of rural agriculture in many Western rural communities. Alfalfa is not only a food source for livestock, it also has important environmental attributes.
Importantly, alfalfa actually has a key role to play in the water-uncertain future of the West due to its high flexibility during times of insufficient or excess water.
Why Do We Grow Alfalfa Today?
Most people understand that Western farmers grow alfalfa as livestock feed for the beef industry. Many people also overlook the fact that alfalfa is the major food source for dairy cows. Dairy cows provide dairy products, another important part of a balanced diet.
Alfalfa hay is essentially dried alfalfa. It is normally cut at a relatively mature stage of growth and left to dry out completely. As a result, the moisture content of hay is very low, but during the drying process some nutrients can be lost.
Alfalfa haylage is alfalfa that has been cut earlier and at a younger stage of growth than hay and left to wilt for a shorter period of time in the field before being baled and wrapped in several layers of plastic or chopped and ensiled.
The difference between haylage and hay is that, while the conservation of hay relies on the removal of moisture, the conservation of haylage relies on the exclusion of oxygen which prevents mold growth.
Tables 1 and 2 (below) summarizes hay and haylage in terms of production and value, respectively, for Western states. Not shown is Wisconsin, the number one producer of alfalfa in the country at over 6.9 billion tons (or 16.4 % of the national total) of dry alfalfa hay and haylage. In terms of dollars, the Badger State generated over $1.2 billion in 2021, or 10.4 % of all the nation’s alfalfa production value. (Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Information).
As you can see from this table, nearly 61% of all the alfalfa production value in the nation derives from Reclamation states. Behind Wisconsin, Idaho is the number two producer of alfalfa in the country. Idaho hay is known for its high-protein content, and is marketable for dairy and horse operations around the world. Idaho’s high elevations and arid climate create ideal drying conditions. Major alfalfa seed companies have facilities in Idaho and develop superior genetics tailored to Idaho’s climate.
California – the third ranking producer of alfalfa in the country – also happens to be the No. 1 dairy state in the nation. California dairies generate 41.8 billion pounds of milk (18.5% of U.S. 2021 total output) from 1.7 million dairy cows. Of that total milk production, 46 percent is used to generate 2.5 billion pounds of cheese. California also leads the nation in the production of butter (534 million pounds), ice cream (528 million pounds), and yogurt (442 million pounds).
Alfalfa is considered to be the “secret ingredient” for the dairy industry; it is essential for higher milk production. Given its protein, calcium and fiber content, alfalfa is universally considered one of the highest-quality forages available for livestock.
Alfalfa also allows dairy producers to blend other crop by-products into their daily feed mix. – things like almond hulls, grape pomace and rice straw -that would otherwise not be utilized. Modern feeding practices now balance multiple feed sources to meet the nutritional needs of dairy cows. As the demand has risen for milk and other dairy products, such as yogurt, cheese, and ice cream, the amount of alfalfa required to meet those needs has remained relatively steady.
Western farmers also grow alfalfa as a seed crop to sell to other farmers around the world. When alfalfa is grown for seed, it flowers. Those alfalfa flowers attract bees and bees produce honey. How sweet it is! More honey is made from alfalfa than any other crop…
Benefits of Alfalfa
Alfalfa fields are the beginning of a food chain for a host of wildlife. The fields attract insects, which attract songbirds. Alfalfa fields also entice gophers, ground squirrels, and other rodents who make their homes there because alfalfa fields are not plowed under each year. All this activity draws the attention of nature’s hunters and predators such as hawks, raptors and foxes looking for prey. Studies have shown several endangered and threatened species use alfalfa habitats. Alfalfa fields are host to beneficial insects that help control harmful pests.
Large wild mammals like deer and elk are drawn to alfalfa for the same reasons dairy cows do. Although they can be annoying to farmers and ranchers at times, deer and elk herds are common sights in rural alfalfa fields in many parts of the West.
Alfalfa promotes healthy soil. It has an extensive root structure that creates channels in the soil and secretes organic acids, which contribute to an improved crumbly soil structure called tilth. Both of these benefits help other types of crops planted later in the same field.
By growing alfalfa as a rotation crop, farmers reduce the need for chemical fertilizers in subsequent crops. Alfalfa is an excellent source of nitrogen, which is an important soil nutrient. Being a legume, alfalfa extracts and “fixes” nitrogen into the soil from the air. For many Western farmers and ranchers, it is the only economic legume crop that can be produced, which makes it a very valuable part of a crop rotation. Not only does alfalfa break pest cycles, it also builds up the soil nutrient levels. This keeps soil sustainable and makes it suitable for organic crop production after the alfalfa is harvested.
Alfalfa roots also protect the soil from erosion in several ways. Since alfalfa fields are not plowed as often as fields growing other crops, the extensive roots hold the soil in place, and the plants provide a canopy that prevents rain from loosening the soil.