Farmers are seeing setbacks from Utah’s endless winter, but one crop is ready to go — alfalfa

“This is where alfalfa and perennial grasses really shine. They are generally not affected by a wet spring.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chad Edgington inspects some of the new lambs at Ace Land and Livestock at Mountain Green on Friday, April 7, 2023.

Utah has an immense amount of snow and melting snow across the state, and it’s affecting farmers across the board.

On the one hand, they breathe a sigh of relief at the abundant irrigation water available this season after years of drought. But cold weather and snowpack have delayed planting and preparation. Livestock have trouble finding food and staying dry. But there’s one crop few are worrying about this season – alfalfa.

“It is a very hardy plant. It can change with the weather, it can change with what is treated with it,” said Brett Bunker, who grows alfalfa, corn and wheat on about 1,200 acres in Delta.

“Alfalfa has built-in variability that gives us flexibility,” Bunker said. “That’s the beauty of the harvest, it really is.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pivot irrigation on an alfalfa field in Mt. Carmel on Thursday, November 10, 2022.

Statewide, Utah had twice as much snow as in a normal year, according to the Utah Snow Survey. The state’s southern watersheds have three times the amount of normal snow cover.

All of the snow and winter weather shows the value of alfalfa to the state’s farmers, said Bailee Woolstenhulme, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

“Not only because they don’t need to be planted every year,” Woolstenhulme said, “but also because … Utah is primarily a ranch state.”

And hay, grown last year, is the only way many of the state’s farm animals can survive.

“This haymaking is vital to feeding the livestock, especially during long winters like the ones we’re experiencing,” Woolstenhulme said, “when the rangeland is still covered with snow.”

A rancher’s perspective

Chad Edgington, a sheep farmer who has flocks in northern Utah, had to haul his ewes to Idaho this spring so they could have their lambs.

“The sheep are preparing to have their babies and there is nothing,” he said. “Everything is congested. There is no food anywhere.”

It took five and a half hours to move 1,000 of his sheep near Idaho Falls.

“Seven different ewes had their lambs on the truck,” Edgington said. “…It’s not ideal.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New lambs at Ace Land and Livestock in Mountain Green on Friday April 7, 2023.

Even baby animals struggle with wet, muddy conditions. If they don’t get dry, they get sick and die. The Utah Farm Bureau reports calf losses up to three times higher than normal.

“When they’re wet and frozen, it goes downhill fast,” Edgington said.

Although he has found some creative solutions to save his newborn animals, they eventually have to be taken to the pasture to be fed. Forage is usually plentiful by mid-April, the rancher said, but all of his pastures “are just buried under snow.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sheep graze on Friday the 7th.

The drought of recent years has meant less forage on the pasture, along with hay shortages as the sprinkler systems limit what they can grow. The US Department of Agriculture reports that the amount of domestically raised cattle has been declining since 2020. Meanwhile, hay prices hit record highs last year and every month in 2023.

“I spoke to a few growers last year about the drought and high prices,” said Matt Yost, assistant professor of crops, soil and climate at Utah State University. “They’re looking for inexpensive food options, which is difficult because it usually means lower quality food, which makes it harder for the animal.”

Water use concerns remain, even with record-breaking discharges

Utah produces some of the most nutritious and valuable alfalfa hay in the world.

But alfalfa has been a source of controversy in recent years as states across the West face water shortages. It takes up to 450,000 gallons to produce a ton of crop.

The Colorado River Basin has experienced crippling bottlenecks in recent years, leading to conflict between the states that rely on it. The Great Salt Lake also shrank to unprecedented lows because its tributaries were overtapped. A record-breaking winter won’t solve Utah’s water problems, leading some to wonder if farmers should even be growing thirsty alfalfa.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alfalfa processing at Bailey Farms in Ephraim on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

However, growers and policymakers point to the flexibility of alfalfa as an effective tool to combat water shortages.

During drought years, farmers can still get a cutting or two from alfalfa hay as it is a desert-adapted plant with deep roots. When they stop watering, alfalfa goes dormant, much like peat. And it grows back year after year.

Justin Scaccy

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