Alfalfa: Planted on the Diagonal
An innovative approach to planting alfalfa produces exceptional yields.
By Tharran Gaines | Photos By Brett Deering
Farmers have always been known for their ability to improvise when necessary; and Will Wheeler, whose family grows 585 acres of alfalfa near Chickasha, Okla., is no exception. Because he doesn’t have an alfalfa drill and because he wanted to put on fertilizer at the same time, he came up with an alternative to plant a new 80-acre stand of alfalfa using his Model 9434-40 Sunflower® drill.
Planting on the Diagonal
With its 7½-inch row spacing, designed primarily for small grains and oilseeds, the 9434 wouldn’t normally be suited for planting a crop like alfalfa. To compensate, Wheeler simply planted the field twice, making two diagonal passes in opposite directions at approximately 45 degrees to normal field travel. As for the edges of the field, he again made two passes—this time in opposite directions, splitting the first set of rows with the second.
“The main reason we bought the drill was for planting wheat,” Wheeler admits. “However, alfalfa really needs to be planted in 4- to 4½-inch rows. So I figured making two passes and planting it in a diamond pattern was worth a try.”
In the past, Wheeler says the process of planting alfalfa involved tilling the field and having the seed dropped from an airplane. After that, the field is simply packed lightly and fertilized.
“Another reason I decided to use the drill was I wanted to apply liquid fertilizer while I planted,” he continues. “I just cut the amount of seed in half for each pass and set the drill to run extremely shallow.”
There is still some question, though, about how wide is too wide for alfalfa row spacing. Vance Owens, a plant scientist at South Dakota State University, compared two alfalfa varieties seeded at 18 pounds of seed per acre at 0-, 6- and 12-inch row spacings. Plants were counted twice during each of the first two years.
Row spacings affected stand density in eight of 11 instances during the first year and the year after establishment, but it affected yield in only one of five cuttings across sites. In general, broadcast and 6-inch rows had higher plant densities than 12-inch rows during the establishment year. However, differences weren’t always significant and tended to diminish the year after establishment as the plants filled in the space.
Still, there are advantages to planting in narrow rows or tighter patterns, especially when there’s a potential for weeds to fill in the spacing between the rows. Those who wish to plant a mix of alfalfa and grass can even follow Wheeler’s lead and drill the alfalfa in one pass, and cross-drill the grass on the second pass. That way, the slower and weaker establishing grass is not competing in the same row with the alfalfa.
“Ironically, the cross-hatch planting has turned out to be one of the best stands we ever had,” says Wheeler. “Virtually everything came up, and I figure we got 5 tons per acre off the field in the first season alone. That’s about a ton per acre more than normal.”
Wheeler explains that in an effort to keep alfalfa fields yielding at maximum capacity, they generally topdress all fields each spring with liquid fertilizer that is custom-blended to match the needs of each field.
“It’s not cheap,” Wheeler admits. “We pull the soil samples and then our supplier, who is actually in Kansas, comes up with a blend for that soil type and its deficiencies,” he adds, noting that the liquid fertilizer applied with their Sunflower drill was blended in the same manner. “We figure if the field makes an extra ¼ to ½ ton per acre, we can pay for the fertilizer. However, with all the rain we got last year, we figure we got at least a couple tons extra.”
Wheeler believes the checkerboard pattern created by his 90-degree planting practice also gave the plants room to spread out as they germinated and grew to maturity. Yet, row spacing was close enough to prevent weeds from getting ahead of the alfalfa.
“The only disadvantage I could see was that we had to go over the field twice, which burned more diesel,” he says. “On the other hand, we didn’t have the expense of flying on the seed or buying an alfalfa drill. And, because we put the fertilizer on with the [Sunflower], we didn’t have a second trip for a topdress application.
“It worked well enough that I’ll do it again,” he concludes.
For more information on alfalfa production, check out the following resources:
“Alfalfa Production Guide for the Southern Great Plains” at http://lubbock.tamu.edu/files/2011/10/Okla-St-Alfalfa-Production-Guide_8.pdf.
Alfalfa Establishment Guide at http://www.plantmanagementnetwork.org/pub/fg/management/2004/alfalfa/