Alfalfa adds diversity to Tennessee farm

When tobacco production was deregulated before the 2005 season, burley grower Shawn Light of Rogersville, Tenn., could see he was going to be making a lot less from leaf.

So he decided to seek another enterprise or two as sources of additional income.

One possibility presented itself. Since he lives in a scenic rural area that is experiencing new population growth, growing hay for recreational horse owners seemed credible.

“When I looked around, I saw that more and more people are buying homes in the country, and the first thing many of them do when they move in is buy a horse or two,” he says. “Those horses need hay. So I try to provide it by square baling alfalfa and grass.”

He sowed his first alfalfa in the fall of 2005, and the results have been good.

“For one thing, it helps in our tobacco rotation,” he says. “We grow tobacco two or three years, then three or four of alfalfa. It helps with the (tobacco) diseases we have, and the alfalfa root system extends very deep and loosens up our red ground.”

Developing a market for his hay has not been a problem. He advertised in the local newspaper when he first had hay to sell and has been dealing with essentially the same customers ever since.

The season runs from May to late September. “In a good year, we will get five cuttings per season,” he says.

There are different quality considerations when you make hay for customers who aren't really farmers.

“For instance, you don't want bales that weigh much over 70 pounds,” he says. “Most of your horse people are women, and they can't pick up a heavy bale of hay. And because people are handling them, the strings can't be loose. The bales have to be good quality and tight.”

He had never sold hay although he grew it occasionally for his cattle herd. “But we had been selling straw in square bales, so we already had a square baler and a discbine conditioner to work the alfalfa with.”

He is currently phasing out straw because so many other farmers in the area are growing it. “We only sell a little now, mainly around Thanksgiving,” he says.

To Light, the future for alfalfa seems bright. “At this point, it is a good supplement to our tobacco, mainly because it requires less labor,” says Light. “The return from 50 acres of alfalfa is like the return from 100 acres of tobacco.

“My alfalfa yields 30 to 40 bales per acre per cutting. If we get five cuttings and if the hay sells for $4 a bale, one acre might produce 150 to 200 bales worth $600 to $800 an acre. With tobacco this year, we did good to clear $450 an acre. But we are going to still grow tobacco as long as we can.”

But horse hay is not the only new enterprise on Light's farm. At about the same time Light began producing alfalfa hay, he put together a registered Limousin herd to go along with the commercial beef herd he has had for some time. He crossbreeds the Limousin cows to a LimFlex bull (a composite of Limousin and Angus), and he is just beginning to sell bulls and heifers, primarily to other registered herds.

“We are trying to promote a good quality heifer and bull,” he says. “There is a market if you produce good cattle.”

Light plans to stay in tobacco as long as he can, but he is hoping to have no more seasons like the hot, dry summer of 2007.

“The heat caused more stress than anything,” he says. “Tobacco can't stand 100 degrees for long. My production was 20 percent to 30 percent off, but to tell the truth, I don't understand how we made any tobacco after all that.”

At press time, Light and a number of burley growers were making plans to petition the buying companies for a higher price for the 2008 crop.

Assuming an agreement can be reached, Light points to several practices that have allowed him to produce burley for less:

  • Unheated outdoor float beds instead of heated greenhouses still make sense to Light for producing plants, even though he is going against the trend. Though there are some tradeoffs due to labor, Light believes that in the current economy, the savings on fuel make plants from float beds cheaper than plants from greenhouses.

  • And Light has discovered one cost-cutting piece of machinery in recent years: School buses!

    “For moving tobacco around, school buses have really cut down on our fuel consumption compared to one-ton trucks and to tractors. They have diesel engines and a top speed of 50 mph.”

    Old school buses typically are sold at auctions by local school systems on a periodic basis. “We try to buy all the buses we can. Using them is a lot easier than using gooseneck trailers and four-wheel wagons,” Light says.

  • Baling on a big scale makes money. “We use a big tobacco baler that makes 600 pound bales,” he says. “It definitely saves money on handling, and I averaged six to eight cents a pound more when I went to the big baler.”

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