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Ag conference addresses alfalfa, energy Wednesday

Posted: Thursday, Feb 7th, 2013

Courier staff writer

MONTE VISTA — A combination of topics came before the Colorado State University (CSU) Extension 2013 Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference crowd on Wednesday at Ski Hi Park in Monte Vista.

Retired San Luis Valley Extension Agent Merlin Dillon presented Valley producers on the conference’s second day with information on alfalfa irrigation and winterkill management.

Overall, he recommended Valley producers plant hardy alfalfa varieties with a winter hardiness rating of two or less; discontinue irrigation in October to prevent disease; irrigate only once after the third cutting; apply at least three-fourths of an inch of irrigation water the last week of October; and minimize compaction from windrowing, bailing, hauling or grazing when the soil is too wet.

He also recommended some irrigation in November to insulate the crown of the alfalfa plant, which can help prevent winterkill.

Irrigation scheduling is an important tool in increasing efficiency, he said. A two-day interval is too often, causing one and one-half inches of water to evaporate from wet leaves and wet soil. Optimum irrigation, he said, is one and one-half inches every five days making for 90 percent efficiency.

“This is where everyone ought to be,” Dillon said. “You need to know how much you are putting on.”

In addition to irrigation scheduling, he said producers could also improve their efficiency through improving application with properly functioning nozzles, which will help improve uniformity on the fields; reduce irrigation frequency; and consider using drip irrigation instead of a center pivot.

“These are very severe ways (to improve efficiency) because they cut your yields,” Dillon admitted. “People aren’t going to want to do these things.”

More specifically, he suggested producers stop irrigating after the first cutting of the year, skip the second cutting and take the final harvest. If producers stop irrigating after the first cutting, it could save 16 inches of water. If only the first and third cutting are removed from the fields, seven and one-half inches could be conserved.

“That is something we need to think about,” Dillon said. “We need to restore the aquifer.”

Winterkill, which has yet to threaten Valley fields this year, is somewhat preventable depending on how quickly Mother Nature delivers warm and cold spells throughout the season, and the plant’s root reserves in the soil, he said.

In 2006, he said a series of warm weather broken with cold snaps caused a disastrous amount of winterkill forcing half of the Valley’s fields to undergo replanting and the other half to sacrifice its first cutting.

“We hope we never have this repeat as bad as it was then,” Dillon said. “But that is what happens. It could still happen this year.”

There are a number of methods to prevent winterkill, he said, including planting dormant cultivars because they harden up to three times faster than non-dormant cultivars and minding the plant’s crown health. Healthy crowns are created through good fertilizers, good irrigation management, cultivating winter varieties, having a protective layer of snow on the crop and good soil aeration.

“Thank goodness we have snow this year,” Dillon said. “It doesn’t get near as cold or near as hot in the soil... Alfalfa has a high tolerance, but management makes a difference.”

Energy and politics

San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative CEO Loren Howard shared his personal opinions with the audience on why electricity and politics don’t mix.

He presented five points for consideration: electricity is a primary enabling unit; electricity requires a long term commitment; generation and delivery methods do not change; electricity is not a commodity market product and reliability wins over price.

Electricity, he said, enables other utilities like water, telecommunications and vehicle fuels.

“We rely on it everyday to run our homes and our farms,” Howard said. “It is the primary utility.”

A long-term commitment is critical for electricity, he said. Building an electric infrastructure and the investment return takes decades, and meeting changing rules and regulations takes time.

Electricity generation and delivery have not changed despite changes in energy harnessing methods like wind and solar, he said, and legislation cannot change this reality. Different methods of distribution, however, have been subject to a few trials. After 30 years in the energy business, he said electricity is best served as a natural monopoly and it is not a true commodity citing market failures connected with companies like Enron.

“Distribution really is one set of lines to the consumer,” Howard said. “Transmission it not something the consumer really sees. Electricity doesn’t work.”

Lastly, he explained consumers don’t like that they are not offered a choice in price, but they do appreciate quality and reliable service.

“People don’t like to see prices go up,” Howard said. “But reliability really is more important.”

After presenting his points, Howard explained why he believes electricity and politics are separate powers.

“There is always this constant turnover,” he said in regards to legislatures. “I think it is difficult to have a long term focus.”

With legislatures not often privy to past dealings, he said they tend to impulsively react to events. For example, he shared a story about a man who froze to death in Michigan because he didn’t understand his electric plan and metering program. After the man was discovered, the municipality decided to forego the metering program designed to let those behind on payments access enough electricity to power the essentials.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Howard about the incident’s outcome. “It was the wrong answer to the outcome.”

In addition, he said lawmakers and political leaders often come into office thinking they need to do something new and do it immediately and, in the end, term limits impact long term institutional knowledge.

“They don’t remember all the things that went on with initial legislation,” Howard said. “Then they solutions they have just don’t do anything.”

In closing, he commented on his feelings towards renewable energy.

“I think it is a good thing, but you have to manage costs,” Howard said, referring to the 14-cent increase per kW hour to access some renewable sources. “Pressures on energy in the world are going up. We need to diversify our portfolio.”

The day also included presentations on barley combine management; the myths of Diesel Exhaust Fluid; the economic impacts of drought; agriculture and its current place in America; improving soil health; and small grain seed treatment.

See future Valley Courier editions for additional stories on the Feb. 6 presentations.

The conference concludes today and focuses on water and marketing.

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