Going Yellow

This new alfalfa cultivar helps boost forage production on a South Dakota ranch.

It's yellow. It's alfalfa. And, it's been around for a while — but you've probably never heard about it.

Head to northwest South Dakota and Bud Smith's ranch near Lodgepole though, and you'll not only get an eyeful of yellow-flowering alfalfa, you'll get an earful about how great this unique alfalfa is as a pasture forage.

“Anybody who's tried to interseed other alfalfas into rangeland or pastures with no success needs to look at what we've done with this alfalfa,” Smith says.

Smith's family began “cultivating” a subspecies of alfalfa (Medicago sativa ssp. falcata) in 1915. The original plantings of “falcata” alfalfa done by Smith's great-uncle came from seed brought to the U.S. from Siberia in the early 1900s by a South Dakota State University agronomist.

That 1915 “Gehriki place” stand still exists. In fact, it's spread significantly in all directions.

In 1962, Bud Smith, now 83, harvested some falcata seed from the Gehriki place and planted it. Today, falcata alfalfa is sprouting all over the ranch.

“We're always looking for a better forage,” Smith says. “I'm sold on this plant — we've grazed it with yearlings, we've grazed it with cows, and just haven't come across anything that does any better on this ranch.” He notes that he's never seen a problem with cattle bloating while grazing this alfalfa.

While Smith was quietly propagating his yellow-flowering alfalfa, other ranchers around the Great Plains and the Intermountain region tried for decades to interseed alfalfa cultivars. Most came away disappointed.

“One reason falcata's been a success is it has a more fibrous root system than other alfalfas,” says agronomist Jerry Schuman, Cheyenne, WY. Therefore it's more competitive with other plants, especially low-producing annual grasses and forbs, he adds. Schuman is with USDA's Agricultural Research Service High Plains Grasslands Research Station.

Hearing about Smith's experience with falcata, Schuman's interest in the forage piqued. He initially wanted to look at its nitrogen fixation aspect related to soil carbon sequestration. However, the more he got to looking at falcata alfalfa, the more he recognized its potential for pasture interseeding and range renovation.

“What impresses me most is the increased forage production and increased forage quality when this alfalfa is interseeded into rangeland,” Schuman says. “Most ranchers are not going to be all that hyped-up about how much carbon it stores.”

Schuman's evaluations have shown that various interseedings on the Smith ranch have increased forage production from 42-143%, depending on the age and relative success of the interseeding. Average protein content of native cool-season grasses in the interseeded stands increased 10%. It was 26% in warm-season grasses.

“There's no question that this is a good plant for introduction into grasslands and improved grass pastures,” Schuman explains. “Obviously, livestock gains and carrying capacity have increased where it's been interseeded.”

Schuman says a large part of the country is well-suited to falcata alfalfa.

“If you look at the climate it comes from in Siberia, it ought to do well in areas of 10-16 inches of annual precipitation,” he says. “It's drought-tolerant and very winter-hardy. I wouldn't use it where there's more moisture though, because there are other choices.” Smith's ranch with sandy loam soils averages 14 inches of annual rainfall.

So where do you get some seed?

“The only place that I know where you can get the seed is from Bud Smith,” Smith says. Smith's last quote for falcata seed was $30/lb. But with his interseeding recommendations of ⅓ lb./acre, a little goes a long way. Plus, he says, it only needs to be seeded once.

“The first year, I'll usually get about 35% of it to grow,” Smith explains. “The next year, the ‘hard seed’ will sprout — hopefully — and more will come on.”

Smith says it sometimes takes 3-4 years for rows to fill in. The falcata will keep spreading and take over the grass, unless it's grazed properly. Smith recommends a rotational grazing program to keep the alfalfa under check.

That's a problem a lot of ranchers would like to have, eh?

For more information, contact Schuman at 307/772-2433 (ext. 107) or Smith at 605/564-2181.