Once it's harvested, it's all you have to work with.

That's the story with forage quality. At last week's Tri-State Dairy Conference, Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin-Madison forage specialist, reminded conference attendees that the highest forage quality occurs before the plant is cut.

"We often recommend harvesting alfalfa at 170 relative feed value (RFV) so we can get close to 150 RFV in the bunker," Undersander said.

This makes the decision of when to harvest especially important.

"We need to harvest for quality rather than by date. One way to do that is by measuring plant height," he told attendees.

His recommendation for optimal forage quality for dairy cows was to cut plants at 28 inches or bud stage, whichever comes first.

What's the biggest opportunity for preserving forage quality from cutting to storage?

Save the leaves.

Although it has long been known that higher leaf quantity in alfalfa equates to a higher quality product, Undersander acknowledged that data collected in a 2015 study in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that showed 71 percent of the change in forage quality was due to changes in leaf content.

According to Undersander, some forage quality was lost during the process of mowing and merging, but the greatest culprit to RFV was chopping, where forage quality took a 17-point hit.

Leaf loss cannot be completely eliminated, but as alfalfa is harvested this summer, keep eyes peeled for lost leaves and opportunities to save them.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2016
April 25, 2016
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