Top Crop Manager

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Take a look at timothy

Markets are buying and returns are strong, but mind the agronomics, say these timothy insiders.


November 15, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

Topics

These days, timothy might be one of the better-paying crops for growers. That is only fair because, according to Glen Campbell, it is also one of the most agronomically challenging.

“Timothy is a high-risk, high-reward crop,” says Campbell, who has grown timothy under irrigation near Burdett, Alberta since 2000. “If you get a quality crop, and get it into the shed in good shape, it can be worth money. But if you’re new to the crop, there’s a real learning curve.”

Timothy appeals to Campbell on several levels. Having land in timothy production keeps the soil from blowing during dry winters. He avoids the complications of crop insurance and the need to market through the wheat board. Timothy also pays the bills.

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Campbell’s preferred variety of timothy is Aurora, marketed through Brett-Young Seeds. “Aurora seems to be a little taller, with a coarser stem, and it stands up well to irrigation,” he says. “You can put on a little more fertilizer and push yields toward four tonnes per acre. It will also come back well if you want to try a second cut.”

He notes that timothy should be seeded on land that is as weed-free as possible, especially of green foxtail and quackgrass. The planting process can be complicated by the fineness of timothy seed, although Campbell himself manages well with heavy harrows.

Timothy likes moisture, especially in the spring, so the uncertainties of irrigation timing can cause headaches. In terms of crop nutrition, Campbell’s main additions for the first cut are 100 to 120 pounds N and 40 pounds P. Making it through the spring in good shape means timothy gets interesting.

“The timing of cutting is crucial,” says Campbell. “It can be a real mind-bender. You don’t want to start baling unless all of the crop is dry, and I mean all.”

Markets want more

According to Harold Zibell, forage seed manager for Brett-Young Seeds, the main reason for the increased popularity of timothy is shifting diets in Japan.

“Traditionally, people in Asia haven’t consumed a lot of dairy products, but that’s changing,” he says. “The majority of Canadian timothy is marketed to add dietary fibre to the cows’ diet. A variety like Aurora works especially well for this market, because it’s very fibrous.”

In 2004, Brett-Young Seeds sold out of Aurora, the fifth year in a row this has happened. Aurora sales have increased by 25 percent in each of the past four years. Zibell credits the variety’s early to medium maturity, strong yields and ability to do well virtually anywhere in Western Canada, moisture permitting.

From a grower’s perspective, the economics seem compelling. Zibell quotes seed costs at $15 to $20 per acre and fertilizer about double that. Timothy crops often produce three to five tonnes per acre and sell for $165 to $200 per tonne.

Says Zibell: “You don’t get a crop the first year, but after that, you’re conceivably looking at a return of up to $500 per acre. And at the moment, the market will buy everything we can produce.”

Start small

“Timothy is one of the most lucrative cropping options available to producers,” says Tracy Dow, a forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. “We’ve compared the returns for 12 different crops and timothy ranks third highest under irrigation, after potatoes and sugar beets, and is second under dryland production.”

He notes that timothy, as a shallow-rooted plant, has fairly heavy water requirements. Growers who do not irrigate, and expect less than 18 to 22 inches of moisture, should look elsewhere. Since herbicide choices are limited in timothy, and Japanese buyers monitor for pesticide residue, Dow echoes Campbell’s views about the importance of seeding into clean fields.

His recommended point of entry is to develop a good relationship with Canadian timothy exporters and understand their agronomic requirements. A list of timothy buyers is available through the Canadian Hay Association at www.canadianhay.com.

For his part, Campbell counsels first-time growers to spend time with a timothy-growing neighbour, especially at harvest time. “You want to learn everything you can about cutting/conditioning, baling and storing,” he says. “You want to talk about risk and reward because with timothy, both are definitely there.”