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

“That’s where alfalfa and perennial grasses really shine. They’re generally not affected by a wet spring.”

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

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

On the one hand, they’re breathing a sigh of relief at the abundant irrigation water available this season after years of drought. But cold weather and snow cover have delayed planting and preparation. Livestock is having trouble finding forage and staying dry. But there’s one crop few are worried about this season — alfalfa.

“It’s a very resilient crop. It can change with the weather, it can change with what it’s dealt,” said Brett Bunker, who grows alfalfa, corn and wheat on about 1,200 acres in Delta.

“Alfalfa has variability built into it, it gives us flexibility,” Bunker said. “That’s the beauty of the crop, it really is.”

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

Statewide, Utah had twice the amount of snow that falls in a normal year, according to the Utah Snow Survey. Southern watersheds in the state have triple the amount of normal snowpack.

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

“Not only because they don’t have to be planted every year,” Woolstenhulme said, “but also because ... Utah is mainly a livestock production state.”

And hay grown last year is the only way many of the state’s farm animals are surviving.

“These hay crops are vital to feeding the livestock, especially during long winters such as we are experiencing,” Woolstenhulme said, “where grazing lands are still covered in snow.”

A livestock farmer’s perspective

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

“The sheep are getting ready to have their babies, and there’s nothing,” he said. “Everything’s plugged up. There’s no feed anywhere.”

It took five semis 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.

Baby animals, too, have struggled with wet, mucky conditions. If they can’t get dry, they get sick and die. The Utah Farm Bureau reports calving losses that are up to three times higher than normal.

“If they’re wet and chilled, it just goes downhill fast,” Edgington said.

While he’s found some creative solutions to save his newborn animals, eventually they’ll have to be turned out on the range to feed. There’s usually plenty of forage by mid-April, the rancher said, but all his grazing sites “are just buried in snow.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sheep graze in one of the few dry spots at Ace Land and Livestock in Mountain Green, on Friday, April 7, 2023.

The last few years of drought meant less forage on the range, along with hay shortages as irrigators cut back what they can grow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports the amount of beef cattle raised domestically has been on the decline since 2020. Meanwhile, hay prices set record highs last year and every month in 2023.

“I talked to some producers last year with the drought and high prices,” said Matt Yost, an assistant professor of plants, soils and climate at Utah State University. “They’re looking for low-cost feed options, which is tough because it usually means lower-quality feed, which makes it harder on the animal.”

Concerns about water use linger, even with record-breaking runoff

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

But alfalfa has been a source of controversy in recent years as states throughout the West face water shortages. It takes as much as 450,000 gallons to produce one ton of the crop, according to a University of Utah economics professor, although some alfalfa farmers dispute this.

The Colorado River Basin has seen crippling shortages in recent years, causing conflict among the states that rely on it. The Great Salt Lake, too, shrank to unprecedented lows due to its tributaries being over-tapped. One record-setting winter isn’t going to solve Utah’s water problems, causing some to wonder whether farmers should be growing thirsty alfalfa at all.

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

Growers and policymakers point to alfalfa’s flexibility, however, as a powerful tool in addressing water depletion.

In years of drought, farmers can still get a cutting or two of alfalfa hay because it’s a desert-adapted plant with deep roots. When they stop irrigating, alfalfa goes dormant, much like turf. And it grows back year after year.