Industrious bees the key to alfalfa seed production
By Anthony VarrianoRanger-Review Staff WriterAlfalfa seed production might be one of the most meticulous farming operations out there, and the massive amount of work and risk involved is the reason why so few farmers take on the project. “I only know of three people doing it in Dawson County,” area farmer Earl Corneliusen said.Corneliusen has been raising alfalfa for 20 years, and got into the business with the help of another local, Barry Whitmer. “Barry Whitmer did a lot of custom pollinating,” Corneliusen said. “The first year he pollinated mine, and then I picked it up from there.”The trouble with alfalfa is it won’t pollinate itself. It needs help, so Corneliusen and other alfalfa seed farmers rely on leafcutter bees from Canada to do the pollinating.“Honey bees won’t do it, but leafcutter bees are more aggressive and will trip the bud that pollinates,” Corneliusen explained. “The bees are a whole ‘nother crop.” In order to harvest a crop of alfalfa seeds, Corneliusen said three to four gallons of bees are needed per acre. That’s up to 40,000 bees per acre, and Corneliusen has 70 acres of land contracted for alfalfa seed production. “They aren’t cheap to get into,” he added. “Demand is high.”Corneliusen said the going rate for a gallon of bees is $125, but you don’t just pay for them and let them go to work. The bees must be incubated for 21 days in spring to warm them up for hatching. Once they’re hatching they create their own heat, and the bees require air conditioning to make sure they don’t burn up. Corneliusen also has to fumigate the bees for mold spores and make sure there are no parasites in the incubator.The worst of it is that if the time to release the bees is misjudged, just one weather event, like a hail storm, for instance, can wipe out your alfalfa bloom and decrease your yield. That’s exactly what happened to Corneliusen last year.“That should have been a year where our yield was 800 pounds, but it ended up being closer to 500,” he said. “I’ve been told to have an 1,000-pound ... yield and in 20 years I’ve never hit it.”Corneliusen added that 800 pounds of alfalfa seed is the highest yield he’s had. “The alfalfa has to be blooming, there can’t be any rain and temperatures have to be above 70 degrees, and we need to know this three weeks in advance” he said, laughing.Corneliusen said Mother Nature can sure keep him guessing sometimes, but if there’s ever an oncoming storm or a cold front on the way, he can take the bees back in for about a week.“When you release them in those fields you want to make sure it’s an environment they want to be,” Corneliusen added. “You want to provide an ideal home.”Generally, the alfalfa blooms at the end of June, and Corneliusen said he tries to release the bees around the first week in July, when it’s warmer and drier. The seed is then harvested in September. Despite the risks and difficulties in harvesting alfalfa seed, there are advantages to the crop. One is that it releases nitrogen into the ground, reducing fertilizer needs for future crops.“There’s more upside to this crop than say wheat,” Corneliusen said. “(Prices) are probably as high, since I’ve been raising it, as high as they’ve ever been.”Alfalfa seed production is no walk in the park, but after 20 years, Corneliusen isn’t about to retire yet. “One of the things I guess I really like about it is once you’ve established your stand, it’s in for three years,” he explained. “You don’t have to replant it every spring, and it takes a lot of the pressure off in spring planting of other crops.”For now, Corneliusen can only play the waiting game and hope Mother Nature brings along some dry, warm weather.“Mother Nature can cover up a lot of your mistakes in a good year, but even in a year when you do everything perfect and Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, you know, nothing works,” he said, laughing. Reach Anthony Varriano at email@example.com.