Thursday, August 26, 2010

Luck of the Draw

What does it take to produce a good stand of alfalfa? I suppose I could innumerate things like a firm seed bed, cooler temperatures and just the right amount of sun and rain.

Those things are all important, according to my personal crop consultant.

But what does it truly take?


Yes, there you have it. The definitive answer is luck.

That isn't according to The Old Farmers' Almanac or some crop science teacher at K-State. No, that's just homespun wisdom from a long ago neighbor. This neighbor always seemed to have great success when he planted new fields of alfalfa. Some of his neighbors asked him why his new alfalfa fields always seemed better established and more lush than theirs.

He gave them his advice, full of things like that firm seed bed and planting by the right light of the moon and other assorted wisdom.

And then, as so often happens when we think we have everything all figured out, he ended up with crop failure after crop failure.

It was then that he dispensed his greatest wisdom.

"Well, boys ..." (I can imagine him pronouncing at the coffee shop). "It turns out the most important factor for alfalfa production is ... luck."

Randy decided to try his luck last week when he planted a couple of new fields of alfalfa. And as is so often the case, his luck ran out about 1:30 in the morning on Tuesday. That's when it started raining. And before it was done, it dumped almost 3.5 inches of rain on the newly planted fields.

At church on Sunday, he had told a neighbor that he would order about a quarter inch of rain, slowly dispersed over a day, with the moisture falling gently and evenly on the newly-sown field.

Somehow, the order got mixed up.

Our alfalfa adventure began with a visit to Miller Seed Farm near Hutchinson to pick up seed. Randy did have a little luck involved in this venture before he ever started planting. He won one bag of seed at a customer information meeting earlier in the month. At $200 a bag, that was definitely an evening well-spent (plus he got supper out of the deal, too)!

Another nice by-product of planting alfalfa? It's a great weightlifting exercise to carry all the 50-pound bags into the shop until you're ready to use them. (You will notice that I carried my camera instead of the bags, even though I could probably use a little weight training in my fitness routine.)

He and Jake changed the settings on the drill, since you plant alfalfa seed at a shallower depth than wheat seed.
Last Friday, Randy got a little more weightlifting in when he filled the drills with the alfalfa seed. (Again, I successfully avoided the task by using my camera. Now my friends know why I take so many photos.)

Here's how the alfalfa looked in the drill.

And here's a close-up of the seeds, which are treated with fungicide and inoculant.

He also mixed in a quarter pound of turnip seed to cover the 70 acres we were planting. The turnips provide a little additional cover during the winter on the newly established alfalfa fields. (Plus, his wife is in charge of the church's food area at the fall bazaar. I'm always looking for turnips to sell by the pound. Nice side benefit.)

Jake disked the fields to clear them of weeds and work in the wheat stubble. It also helps create that firm seed bed.

Randy then followed with the planter. The yellow tank on the planter holds fertilizer, which he also applied as he planted the alfalfa.

An alfalfa field produces hay for about seven years, during which we harvest the crop to feed to our cattle and sell the extra.

And then came the rain.

I then learned another tidbit: Alfalfa doesn't like wet feet. Well, I'm not a huge fan either, but I guess it's a little more serious for the alfalfa. If alfalfa is sitting in water for 48 hours, it will die. That's why mudholes in fields never have alfalfa.

But, there were glimmers of hope. Yesterday morning, we were able to find a few hearty sprouts of alfalfa in the field.

My eternal optimist isn't ready to write off the entire crop. However, he figures that replanting is in his future. It costs about $50 an acre for seed each time you plant. (That's why I can never re-do the bathrooms in my house. Alas, such is the life of a Kansas farm wife. There are trials along with the considerable perks.)

So next time, we hope to sprinkle in that ever-so-important factor ... LUCK.


  1. Is Randy wearing purple on purpose (go Cats!) Your farmer has amazingly clean fingernails! However, I do worry about him handling the treated seeds with bare hands! Kim, you are great at realizing the importance of step-by-step understanding for your audience, when what you are explaining is so commonplace to your life.

  2. Step-by-step is also educational for seasoned, long-time farm wives!! Keep it up,Kim!

    Jane Tompkins

  3. Yes, purple is often the color of choice around here. Thanks to you both for the encouragement! (Honestly, writing this blog has been a way for me to learn more, too. I ask a lot of questions I didn't necessarily ask before!)