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Acclaimed alfalfa

After trial and error, Giles County’s Lee Gilmore has found the right formula for growing forage of superior quality
Story and photos by: Chris Villines 1/28/2019

 

With a thorough approach to management and a drive to continually educate himself, Lee Gilmore has achieved premium quality with the 45 acres of alfalfa he grows at Seldom Rest Farm in Giles County. The customer base for Lee’s alfalfa hay extends as far away as Florida.
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Lee Gilmore confesses that his first two attempts at growing alfalfa didn’t quite pan out.

“They were utter failures,” he bluntly puts it.

But the third try? Jackpot.

Literally.

Lee, who grows 45 acres of the crop at Seldom Rest Farm near Pulaski, won $1,000 for submitting an alfalfa sample with the highest relative forage quality (RFQ) in the 2017 Southeastern Hay Contest. His entry beat out 327 others spread out among seven categories.

“I knew I had a pretty good shot at winning,” says Lee, whose achievement also earned him the use of a Massey-Ferguson RK Series rotary rake for a year. “As soon as I got the sample back from the lab with the score, I did a search, and it would have won in 10 of the 11 years the contest has existed. That’s when I decided it would be in my best interests to enter.”

The secret to Lee’s reversal of fortunes with alfalfa is really no secret at all, he contends. It’s just part of the continued educational process he has dived headfirst into after retiring from the oil industry and converting from part-time to full-time farmer in 2005.

“I read everything I can get my hands on and follow advice from Extension, our local Soil Conservation District, and Co-op,” says Lee, a member of both Giles County and Marshall Farmers Co-ops. “I take all that information and apply it to the best of my ability here on the farm. I try to do everything right.”

Word has spread beyond the county and even the state about the quality of Lee’s alfalfa, which he square bales and sells, leaving some for his own 15-head commercial cattle herd. He grows two Roundup Ready DeKalb varieties and recently planted another field in Croplan’s RR Vamoose variety, which has a high resistance to the destructive potato leafhopper insect. He purchases his seed through the Co-op.

“Most of my customers are horse and goat owners, and there are a few who have high-value cattle,” says Lee. “I have one customer from Georgia who drives five hours each way to get 100 bales and has for the past four years. My best cutting last year got sold out of the field before I could even test it.”

Talk to Lee and those who partner with him on the progress of his alfalfa, and two words ring clear on why the crop flourishes: thorough management.

“He is very conscious of putting up good quality hay,” says Kevin Rose, Extension director for Giles County. “I think part of the problems some hay producers have is their timing on cutting and managing all the details. Lee is constantly scouting his fields and searching for ways to make his alfalfa better. He knows you have to treat alfalfa differently because it’s a different crop, and that’s what makes him a great manager.”

In preparing for seeding, Lee says he soil tests at least six months beforehand to get fertility and pH levels where they need to be.

“If the test shows I need to put down lime, I will do that as soon as I can,” he explains. “Sometimes I will put it down as soon as I get the ground broken up or just before. That tends to incorporate it a little better than spreading it on top of the surface. If I am going to no-till and need to lime, I will definitely do it at least six months before I plant.”

With fertilization, Lee says he uses mostly potassium and phosphorus along with trace minerals and says he takes a different

approach from the norm.

“A lot of people fertilize once a year, but I like doing split applications,” he reveals. “I’ll put it out in spring and after the third or fourth cutting, I’ll put out more. That has worked out well for me.”

Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Agronomy Specialist Brett Jones says nitrogen is also a possible addition to the alfalfa fertilization lineup.

“Sometimes, you can add nitrogen as a boost to what’s already there,” says Brett. “You don’t want to make the plant lazy, because it is producing some nitrogen, but it’s something to examine especially as long as that plant is nodulating and pulling in nitrogen when you look at the roots on it.”

With each cutting, Lee sends a forage sample to the University of Tennessee’s Soil, Plant and Pest Center for analysis and reports that his hay has tested premium every time except once in the four years since he started his third run with the crop. Again, how he manages his alfalfa factors into the good results.

“I try to cut it as soon as it starts blooming, weather dependent,” he says. “I cut it as high as I can set my mower for two reasons — one, you get the better-quality stuff at the top and two, I’ve got rocks in my fields. Even though I have equipment that picks rocks up, some can still get through and that can damage your mower and baler.”

On days that he bales alfalfa, Lee says the hay gets raked early in the morning while it is still damp with dew to help preserve the leaves, where most of the nutrients are located. The raking is usually done by his 88-year-old mother, Trudy Gilmore, who also mows pastures, discs fields, helps work cattle, and performs other farm work.

“She’s amazing,” Lee says. “I’m not sure what I would do without her.”

By mid-afternoon, the hay will be dry enough to bale. Moisture-wise, Lee says he likes to put up hay that is below but close to 18-percent moisture.

“Whenever I can, I do a microwave moisture test prior to baling and then use a moisture probe for monitoring while baling,” he stresses. “Moisture content can be tricky. I have put up 20 percent hay that remained beautiful and 17 percent hay that molded.”

Alfalfa hay, says TFC Feed Specialist Rick Syler, provides many benefits to animals.

“Ruminants and equine all require forage in their diet,” Rick explains. “The higher-quality forage they get, the healthier they’ll be. With alfalfa especially, you’re providing high-quality protein, good energy, and high levels of calcium and potassium, all essential nutrients for proper growth, health, and maintenance.”

Never wanting to stand pat, Lee emphasizes that he’s always seeking ways to improve his alfalfa.

“My yields are not what I would like them to be,” he says. “This past year, I got around 4 tons per acre. I’m going to experiment with my fertilization. I always soil test and am thinking about managing the fertilization program for greater yields.”

This mindset of continuous improvement is why those who work closely with Lee, like Giles County Farmers Co-op Outside Salesman Larry Dickey, admire him.

“He didn’t give up when his first two tries at growing alfalfa didn’t work out due to circumstances beyond his control,” Larry says. “I’ve seen a lot of alfalfa in my time, and Lee’s is hard to beat.”

To learn more about the benefits of Roundup Ready alfalfa, talk with the crop experts at your local Co-op.

 
 
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