A Science for Everyone, Plants

Time to Plant Alfalfa

It’s time to plant alfalfa again.  I’m pretty sure that I last planted this field when I was in high school, in the mid-sixties, and it has run out.  But the world is a different place now, and many new varieties have developed in the past half-century.

I like alfalfa – it gets a couple harvests each year, even here, and the seed germinates in soil temperatures from 40 degrees to 104.  The big challenge is a well prepared seedbed and avoiding the last Spring frost.  Then comes hoping for rain.

About a century ago, someone decided the easy way to make a field here was dynamite – blasting a ditch that drained a lake and left only a pond.  It was an easy way to make a field, but the soil under the lake was glacial clay and silt, and the years had left it infused with calcium salts.  I don’t recall if the alfalfa I seeded back in the sixties was Vernal, Grimm or 9-19 – buying the seed was Dad’s responsibility, planting it was mine.  This time, I have the task of tillage – with a rototiller on the back of a tractor instead of a plow, and the task of selecting the variety of alfalfa.

I’m looking to the east to find my alfalfa.  Not so far, just east of the Rockies where they have developed salt and water tolerant species to use in saline seeps.  My new variety should be able to handle the water table – it has both lateral and tap roots – and the calcium salts.  The rototiller is breaking up the moss that has moved into the meadow, demonstrating the compaction and reduced fertility.  Sometimes, decisions made a century ago still affect your options a hundred years later.

I’ll be maintaining the half-acre of salina wildrye – a range plant native to Utah.  Mine descended from a pocketful of seeds I picked around 1980, planted in the salt lick, and left it for 30 years to handle the overgrazing.  It’s been successful, and Utah’s Extension Service describes it “Salina wildrye is fair to poor forage for livestock and game animals, being most useful during the early spring. It is used to a limited extent by upland game birds and songbirds. It is a rather poor erosion control plant in pure stands because of its bunchiness. The foliage is harsh and tough to the touch. Salina wildrye is quite resistant to grazing.”  My half-acre matches that description, but has the advantage that it thrives alongside the 49th parallel, and likes fine-textured soils.  

After I get the first 3 acres of salt and water tolerant alfalfa in, I’ll be looking at the southwest and southeast corners of the field.  They’re up against the quarter line, and I’ll probably plant those edges into a herbicide resistant alfalfa – back to just deep roots, and an easier spot to control the occasional knapweed plant that the deer bring in.  The following year will be another small patch of the salt tolerant alfalfa. 

Maybe the second childhood just means returning to small scale farming.

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