Alfalfa is a homegrown forage that can provide high-quality fiber, high protein content, and good yields. First-crop alfalfa sets the pace for the rest of the season. A misstep with first crop can be quite costly.
Although we can’t control the weather, there are absolutely variables we can control. The right decisions set the stage for getting the most high-quality haylage from this important crop.
1. Start with good soil nutrition. The plant requires certain nutrients (such as nitrogen, potassium, and sulfur) to grow and express protein to its full potential. Work with a certified crop advisor to take soil samples and make sure your alfalfa crop has what it needs to start successfully.
2. Ensure you have a good stand. Walk alfalfa fields early and often to scout for winterkill. Count the number of healthy stems per square foot with a goal of at least 50 stems per square foot. Use this to decide if the stand in each field is healthy enough to proceed. If not, work with your forage team to evaluate your replanting options.
3. Harvest at the right maturity. Forage digestibility is highest for first cutting versus other cuttings because it usually has grown at the coolest temperatures of all the cuttings. Research has also shown that forage quality decreases at a faster rate for first-cut alfalfa versus subsequent cuttings. Therefore, it is crucial to get it right for first-cutting alfalfa.
PEAQ sticks, scissor clippings, and accumulated growing degree units can all be used to help determine when first-crop alfalfa should be harvested. Regardless of the method, it’s critical to stay on top of alfalfa quality. Under normal conditions, a five-day delay in first cutting results in an improvement of 0.25 tons of dry matter (DM) per acre, but it also results in a decline of 20 points of relative feed value (RFV). Work with your nutritionist to identify the best balance of yield and quality for your farm.
4. Ensile at the proper DM, ideally 40% to 45%. This is the most important variable in the ensiling process. Silages that are too wet are at risk of butyric fermentation or excessive seepage. Silages that are ensiled too dry typically have lower protein due to leaf shatter and are prone to spoilage due to packing difficulties.
5. Use good ensiling and storage practices. Poor management practices during ensiling and storage can backtrack all the hard work that went into producing high-quality crops. Consider a bacterial inoculant proven to quickly drop silage pH. Fill the silo quickly in thin layers, cover it promptly with oxygen barrier plastic, and feed it at a rate that stays ahead of spoilage.
First-crop alfalfa often offers the best yield and quality of all the cuttings, amplifying the effects of mistakes made with this crop. If quality is poor, the rest of the season is spent trying to make up for it. A great first-crop alfalfa can make everything easier.