When Bill Johnson started farming 50 years ago, cotton paid most of the bills on his east New Mexico farm. As cotton profit opportunities dwindled, however, alfalfa began to “carry a larger part of the load,” Johnson says.

Johnson's reputation for producing top quality forage has earned him business from some customers who have been loyal for more than 50 years.

“My father raised cotton in Mississippi, so he continued with it when he moved to New Mexico in 1924 (to a fertile valley near Artesia). But the worldwide market for cotton has not been good for the last few years. Now, alfalfa is one of the only crops that will pay its way.”

Johnson and his son Jimmy raise 1,800 acres of alfalfa, along with cotton, chili peppers and milo for seed.

“Alfalfa and cotton have always been important crops for this valley,” he says. “Recently, large dairies have moved in and that has helped the alfalfa business, but we've always had a good market for our hay.

“We put 60 percent of our crop in small bales and sell it all over the country,” he says. “We have feed store customers in Houston, San Antonio and other areas. We also sell to ranches to the east and west of New Mexico.”

He puts the rest in large round bales, primarily for nearby dairies. “Droughts the past few years created some shortage of quality hay, not just here but in other key alfalfa producing areas as well. We were able to make a crop but our water bill was higher last year.”

Johnson says maintaining quality is critical to keep customers, especially those who buy for half a century. “We strive to keep clean fields,” Johnson says. “We always use a preplant herbicide before we plant alfalfa to make certain we get started without weeds.

“We put the herbicide through our irrigation sprinklers to prevent bringing weed and grass seed up with cultivation.”

He says a stand lasts from four to five years before it declines enough to justify rotating to another crop. “We follow alfalfa with chili peppers or cotton. Cotton does well behind alfalfa because it picks up residual nitrogen.”

It's all irrigated. “We water every month and apply at least six inches per year. We're limited to 36 inches of water a year from the water district, but we can live with that restriction.”

Yields push 10 tons per acre for a season. “We'll cut at least five times a year,” Johnson says, “and we'll average seven to eight tons and make 10 on some fields.”

Alfalfa requires a “lot of phosphate and young plants need some nitrogen. We'll apply an 0-20-0 analysis on most fields with some 16-20-0 for new plantings. We also buy some manure from the dairies. We can't get much but it helps.”

Johnson employs an entomologist to scout for insects in alfalfa, cotton, pepper and milo fields. “It's a good investment to have someone find where insects get started and then control them early. He checks fields every week.”

Johnson often bales at night to take advantage of the higher humidity that holds leaves on the alfalfa stems. “When the moisture level gets right, we bale,” he says. “In drought periods, the best humidity often occurs at sunup, so we bale a lot early in the morning to preserve leaves.”

It's been a good year for alfalfa. “We had more rain than last year. We only got four inches all season in 2001, but we didn't have much rain damaged hay.”

He does all he can to preserve quality of hay even if it has slight discoloration from rainfall. “We have a good market for that hay. Dairies and ranchers buy it. We get a little lower price than we do for top quality, but it's still good hay and may be safer to feed. You can't overfeed it as easily as with real choice alfalfa hay. Sheep and cattle may bloat on too much top grade hay.”

Johnson also uses discolored or more undesirable hay for his own cattle herd. “I can use what we don't have a market for,” he says.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com