Going the Distance: Growing Alfalfa to Export

When customers pay to have alfalfa shipped more than 5,000 miles, they expect to receive maximum feed value.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By David Bagley

It’s nearly 7:30 a.m. and milking has just finished on a small 50-cow dairy. Now, it’s time to mix the herd’s feed ration—which includes a few bales of dry alfalfa—and let the cows loaf for a while before the evening milking.

This could certainly be the scene on any dairy in Wisconsin or Vermont. But this scenario played out in Japan … and the alfalfa the farmer fed traveled nearly 5,000 miles, from Washington state’s Columbia Basin, where Calvin Calaway and his father, Courtney, operate Calaway Company.

“My father grew up on a hay operation with his dad—my grandfather—who was one of the pioneers in exporting alfalfa products to Japan in the late 1970s,” says the younger Calaway, noting that Calaway Company started soon after that in 1985. “From that start, Dad expanded into his own operation, started growing his own products, and, in early 2000, began exporting hay on his own.

“Our customer base is still in Asia, with Japan being a big importer of our products,” he adds. “In the last five to 10 years, though, China has also become a large importer of our alfalfa products.”

Diversified offerings. While alfalfa accounts for a majority of their acres, Calaway says the family also grows corn and other rotational crops popular in the Columbia Basin. Timothy hay, which the family grows, has become more in demand by the export market and by horse owners in the United States.

“One of the greatest benefits of feeding timothy is its palatability,” he notes. “When fed in a mixed ration, the cows can’t stay away from the stuff. However, it also provides great nutritional benefits for horses in different stages of life.”

Calaway says timothy provides several benefits to growers who also produce alfalfa. For one, alfalfa growers already have all the equipment they need to grow and harvest timothy. Plus, timothy works well in rotation for fields that need a rest from alfalfa production.

Dan Undersander, forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says there are other agronomic reasons for growing grass hay as well. Some grasses, for example, establish faster than alfalfa and produce more total forage yield in a seeding year. He says grasses also provide a wider harvest window on second and later cuttings. Plus, grass regrowth is primarily leaves, which change little in quality if harvest is delayed a few days.

No matter which crop the Calaways grow or export, though, the quality must be maintained from the cutting stage through double compression and shipping, if it’s going to be accepted by overseas buyers. “The stage I like to cut alfalfa is right before the bloom stage,” Calaway says.

“That’s the time that I feel we get the most yield without sacrificing digestibility. We’ll average four to five cuttings in this area, with harvest occurring every 28 to 40 days, depending on the weather.”

Calaway explains that, weather permitting, they also prefer to cut hay in the middle of the day. He says the plant more easily releases moisture then, improving drydown and helping conserve the plant’s sugar.

“As soon as you cut alfalfa, it begins to respire and lose sugar and carbohydrates, which are 100% digestible,” says Undersander. “So, the first principle is to cut forage early enough in the day so it can dry to 60% moisture by nightfall to slow down respiration. In the West, you can cut in the afternoon when the sugars are high, because the drying conditions are better. In the Eastern United States, we need to cut in the morning to midday so it dries to that level by nightfall.”

“The amount of sugar and starch in any forage crop will go through a daily cycle,” agrees Dennis Hancock, assistant professor and state forage Extension specialist at the University of Georgia. “Regardless of where the crop is grown, the plant creates carbohydrates during the daylight hours via the process of photosynthesis. However, a substantial amount of these carbohydrates are used up during the night for growth and maintenance, via the processes of respiration.”

However, Hancock warns, the greatest risk to hay curing and forage quality in the humid Eastern states is rain damage. “Producers in our region should base their [harvest timing] decision more on the potential impact of the weather rather than the minor diurnal variations in sugar content in the forages.”

Calaway says he also takes windrow width into consideration to match the yield potential and forecasted drying conditions. “The wider we can lay our windrow, the quicker the dry time, which can be important when we need to get it into a bale before that rain comes,” he explains.

“On the other hand, if we put a windrow on the wet ground, it’s hard to get that moisture out of the crop, and it can actually increase the amount of time that we need to get it dry. Optimal moisture for us in a big bale is as dry as possible without sacrificing leaf retention,” he adds.

“But I like to set a threshold at about 12% in the bale. I feel like that gives us a nice amount of leaves in the product, which is what our customers want.”