Alfalfa is a wonderful plant – delicious, nutritious, and productive. It is a perennial plant that thrives on heat and regenerates very quickly after being cut, making it the main hay producer in the West.
We cut it the end of June for the first time this year, and are in the middle of the second cutting now. We got about 3 tons per acre on the first cutting, and a little more than one ton on the 2nd.
This shows the regrowth after about six weeks:
The hay is cut with a “Swather”, which lays the hay in “Windrows”. Depending on the weather it may require only one day, or more than a week, to dry down sufficiently to bale.
While most ranches have gone to the big round bales, I still make small square bales.
The moisture content of hay is crucial. It must be less than 25% when it is baled or the hay will heat and mold. But when it gets too dry, the leaves – where the feed value resides – will fall off. I try to do my baling at night or in the early morning when the humidity is up to 50% and the hay moisture may be above 20%
At our altitude we get only two cuttings per summer. In Billings and Bozeman they get three cuttings. In Arizona, I am told, they can get up to six cuttings if they have sufficient moisture.
It takes a full four inches of water, however, to make a cutting of hay. And when you figure in evaporation, it takes 6”. It has been so dry this summer that we have irrigated three times already. Each of these irrigations adds about 4” to the soil profile, so we have given the alfalfa every bit of the water it needed to thrive.
Montana may be perceived as a cowboy state, but a northern rancher spends all summer putting up hay, and all winter putting it out again. That isn’t necessary in the SouthWest, so those cowboys actually spend a lot more time in the saddle.
But I hate the heat, and actually enjoy those 20 below mornings. So I’ll stay put in Montana for at least a few more years.