This Alfalfa Hay Quality Is Off The Charts

This Texas hay producer is setting new regional records for alfalfa quality and feed value.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Brett Deering

tight rows of quality alfalfa hay

Tight rows help make for quality alfalfa, says Randy McGee.

When Randy McGee entered the Southeastern Hay Contest this past year, he knew he had some of the best hay he had ever grown. What he didn’t expect from last year’s crop, though, was to have it named the winning entry in the baled alfalfa category. Not only that, but his sample was literally off the charts in terms of relative feed value, garnering the highest score in the entire contest.

man holding alfalfa hay

Randy McGee

“My entry actually scored 360 on relative feed quality [RFQ], yet the scoring chart only went to 300,” McGee explains, noting that the average score in the alfalfa hay category, which accounted for 31 entries, was 213 RFQ. “In fact, the next closest sample had an RFQ value of 283.”

What Hay Customers Want

Having farmed his own operation for some 18 years, McGee runs what is now a 600-acre farm near Idalou, Texas. He recently acquired a small herd of 65 cows, and grows about 200 acres of alfalfa each year, most of which goes to two nearby commercial dairies. In addition, he custom harvests hay and forage for a few other dairies in the area. McGee produces mostly corn on his remaining land. It and any subpar alfalfa go directly to a local feedlot. Any remaining alfalfa, which is put up in small bales, goes to horse owners.

“Ironically, the dairies aren’t that particular about hay color, as long as it tests a minimum of 180 RFQ,” he says, noting that the RFQ value helps dairy managers determine how much hay they need to feed for a pound of milk.

“Fortunately, most of what I’ve supplied them has been running around 230 to 240 [RFQ]. On the other hand, horse owners don’t pay much attention to feed value. They just want it to be green and free of blister beetles.”

So what are McGee’s secrets for growing such high-quality alfalfa?

1. Tight Hay Rows & Tissue Samples

McGee’s intensive management that starts with planting alfalfa in tight rows only 4 inches apart. This doesn’t leave much room for weeds, particularly after the alfalfa becomes established.

Equally important, McGee takes tissue samples from his alfalfa crop at regular intervals and then spoon-feeds the appropriate amount of potash, phosphorus and/or zinc through the irrigation system.

“I also think the alfalfa varieties are getting better every year,” he adds. “It seems like every time I try a new variety, it does better than the last one.”

2. Drip Irrigation

drip irrigation equipment for growing quality hay

With drip irrigation and quality hay equipment, McGee has nearly doubled his yield and produced award-winning quality alfalfa.

Another key component in alfalfa management is the subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) system McGee installed under 150 acres of his farm. “All of the alfalfa is irrigated,” he relates. “However, there are only 60 acres that are still under center pivot irrigation.

“The difference is, it may take a day or more for the pivots to make the full circle, whereas I can apply about a quarter-inch of water to the entire drip-irrigated fields literally every day. It basically eliminates the wet/dry cycle … The plants are never stressed.

“I can also get water back on the fields a lot earlier too,” he adds. “On the fields with drip irrigation, I turn the water off just before I windrow, since the surface never gets muddy. You can’t do that with a center pivot.”

3. Hay Yield and Payoff

Although McGee says he could potentially use less water, he actually applies about the same amount as he does on pivot-irrigated fields. As a result, McGee says the yields of his alfalfa grown with SDI, which is subject to less evaporation from wind and heat, have nearly doubled compared to those watered by the pivots.

“Last year, I got 10 to 12 tons of alfalfa per acre from the drip-irrigated fields compared to 6 to 7 tons per acre from pivot-irrigated fields,” he explains, also noting he gets higher yields on crops he rotates on his SDI land. “Plus, most of the drip-irrigated crop was higher in relative feed value. Right now, I’m seeing about a three-year payoff for the system.

“The drip tubes on all of my fields are on 40-inch spacing, which helped cut the cost per acre,” he says of his system that was made by Netafim USA. “In comparison, a lot of producers put them on 30-inch spacing. Yet, I’m still getting nearly double the yield and quality on alfalfa, so it pays off pretty quickly.

“Alfalfa prices are still pretty good,” he admits. “But commodity prices for most grain crops are down. So one of the best ways to overcome these lower prices is to increase yields … and with drip irrigation and proper management, we’ve been able to do that. At the same time, the efficiency of my Hesston by Massey Ferguson® equipment has allowed me to harvest more dairy-quality hay, which means a better price per ton.”