A Cool Place to Grow

A Cool Place to Grow

Cochise County alfalfa growers find climate–and pivots–yield higher quality dairy hay

Much is being made of the alfalfa grown in Cochise County, Arizona – and for good reason, too. Just as Nebraska’s climate and soil are ideal for irrigated corn production, Cochise County’s cool night air is aiding the growth of high-quality dairy hay.

Because Cochise is located at a 4,200-foot (1,280-meter) elevation, evening temperatures generally drop into the 60s F or 70s F (15-25+ C), down from daytime temperatures that can reach the low 100s F (37+ C), allowing for slower plant growth. This phenomenon results in higher quality alfalfa and more cuttings of dairy hay per season.

“This valley is capable of high-yielding and very high-quality hay,” says Cochise County grower Jason Barnard. “Average yields vary from 8 to 10 tons per acre (17.9-22.4 MT/ha) annually.”

High-Quality Alfalfa

Barnard’s farm, located just north of Elfrida, Ariz., is made up of a combination of alfalfa, red chili peppers and sorghum. Of his 1,200 acres (486 ha), 525 (212 ha) are alfalfa. Like many growers in the area, he has come to rely on pivot irrigation to make the most of a limited water supply and keep his high-quality alfalfa irrigated.

“Pivots have definitely helped us to be successful with alfalfa,” says Barnard. “With the expense of pumping our water, the newer technology and conservation-minded measures help us keep water use to a minimum, while still maximizing yields.”

Fellow grower David Collins has also seen the positive effects of Cochise’s climate, as well as the benefits of pivot irrigation.

Feed Value

“The elevation and nighttime temperatures make the feed value higher by increasing the leaf size and leaf-to-stem ratio,” says Collins. “The only thing that keeps us from making dairy-quality hay for all six or seven cuttings is the amount of rain we get in the summer – six plus inches (152+ mm) in July.”

Collins’ farmland includes 360 acres (146 ha) east of Willcox, Ariz. – 240 acres (97 ha) for alfalfa and 120 (48.5 ha) for corn. He irrigates all 360 acres via center pivot, the first of which he installed in 1992.

“After adjusting farming habits and practices, yields increased and our input costs, including water, fertilizer and labor, went down,” he says. “We currently have eight pivots – all Zimmatic. Five are three years old or newer. The other three are 14 to 18 years old.”

Precise Application

Before purchasing his center pivots, Collins used furrow irrigation, but the results were less than ideal. In addition to being inefficient and time consuming, uniform water application was nearly impossibly to achieve. Now his Zimmatic pivots deliver the precision application he needs to get the high-quality dairy hay he wants.

“The pivot gives us the ability to apply exactly the right amount of water the alfalfa needs,” Collins says. “We can apply as little as .15 inches (3.81 mm) or as much as two inches (50.8 mm) per irrigation. We also have the ability to chemigate and fertigate the crop.”


Both Barnard and Collins use FieldNET™ irrigation controls to further boost the efficiency of their operations.

“With FieldNET, even though our farms are very spread out, we’re still able to monitor and manage without being on-site every day, and our labor requirements are much less than with any other type of irrigation,” says Barnard. “FieldNET has been an important part of our operation for three years now. It allows timely management and monitoring that previously took many man-hours and miles. Plus, it gives us management options that were not possible before.”

“The success growers are seeing in our area has to do with the climate, but it also has to do with hard work, the spacing between drops, spray packages and FieldNET,” says Greg Sweatt of Whitewater Irrigation, Inc. in Cochise.  “As a Zimmatic dealer, we’re tremendously excited about the potential of pivot-irrigated alfalfa in our area.”

The Future

Looking toward the future, the growers in Cochise want to make the most of their ideal growing circumstances by utilizing the most efficient irrigation systems and technology available.

“I anticipate that pivots will always be the main irrigation utilized in this valley.  Modern pivot technology has allowed us to use less water more efficiently, resulting in larger yields,” says Barnard.

“Our future is going to be dictated by water availability and cost, and I am looking forward to some of the technology that is being developed to help us be even more efficient and productive with our water.”

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