Western Farms’ alfalfa seed fields looked good as of early August, but co-owner Joe Weitz wasn’t celebrating just yet.
He and his brother, Tony, own 2,500-acre Western Farms. Based near Lake Lowell outside Caldwell, Idaho, they grow alfalfa seed — pollinated by alfalfa leafcutter bees they raise — but they also grow radish seed, onions, corn, wheat and mint.
The farm grows proprietary alfalfa seed on contract for a handful of Boise-area seed companies that own the seeds. The seed companies weigh, clean and package the harvested seed before they sell it to hay growers, sometimes directly but usually through dealers or farm cooperatives.
This year’s alfalfa seed harvest at Western Farms likely will start around Aug. 20 and last two weeks.
As the month began, crop and field conditions were favorable and in line with long-term averages, Joe Weitz said. Weather and pollinating conditions, and water supplies, have been good this year.
“But there’s a lot of things that can happen to alfalfa seed before it gets harvested,” he said. “Wind, rain and hail are the three that can damage it. We’re OK so far.”
Such weather events can materialize in southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon as August unfolds, in contrast to the hot, dry conditions that characterize much of the region in midsummer.
That’s one of the reasons it’s hard to predict alfalfa seed yield based on how it looks in the field.
“Until you get it to the cleaning facility, you don’t know what you have,” Weitz said.
Seed companies work with their contracted growers throughout the growing season to help control the variables that can be controlled. After harvest, the companies clean the alfalfa seed of extraneous material such as dirt, chaff and weed seeds to arrive at the rigorous industry standard for seed purity.
“The crop is in great shape for this time of year,” said Lynn Nichols, field representative with Alforex Seeds in Homedale, Idaho. At this stage, yields look average or above average, “and if dry weather cooperates, we should see that relayed into harvest.”
A normal spring and good moisture conditions helped the area’s alfalfa seed crop get into good shape as of early August, Nichols said. Timely applications of herbicide kept weeds at manageable levels, leaving fields largely weed-free, or “clean.” Insect pressure has been minimal.
Bloom timing, a reflection of pollinator activity, was ideal and produced good seed set, he said. Growers this year took advantage of lower costs for pollination services and placed more pollinators overall, leading to better seed set.
Weitz said growing alfalfa seed is challenging even as seed companies and farmers make advancements. Western Farms has been growing it for 36 years.
“Most years, Idaho weather is conducive to growing alfalfa seed,” he said.
The southwestern Idaho-southeastern Oregon region is among the world’s top-ranked seed producers and is a major player in alfalfa seed.