Now that planting is in full swing for most parts of the country, the next task farmers will be faced with is forage harvesting. Unlike annual crops like corn, alfalfa is a high-yielding perennial that requires a bit more attention. With a life span ranging from four to eight years, alfalfa provides dairy cattle with key nutrients needed for lactation such as calcium, phosphorous, potassium, and magnesium. To help us get the most out of our alfalfa stands, Scott Newell, an extension specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, highlighted some key components to be aware of as we near forage harvest.

Monitoring the stand will help you make decisions for the following planting season based upon what is observed. To evaluate a stand, start by counting the number of plants and stems that are greater than 2 inches in height in a set area. Remember to do so in various random locations, targeting more than 55 stems per square foot. If the stand count is between 50 and 55 stems, some yield reduction can be expected. Consider replacing your alfalfa stand if there are fewer than 39 stems. “The older the stand, the more susceptible it is to winterkill,” cited Newell during a “Badger Crop Connect” webinar.

Like stand evaluation, crown evaluation is also critical and will help assess the overall health of an alfalfa plant. To do so, dig up some crowns and split them open. The more damaged the crowns, the more susceptible they are to yield loss. “Over the life of a stand, generally as the crown gets bigger, the center of the stem will start to exhibit some rot,” Newell said.

If planting any new seedings of alfalfa, preparing a good seed bed is the first step. The seed bed should be fine, smooth, and firm with minimal trash. Newell said that we must remember seed to soil contact is paramount for success. Plant at depths of 1/4 of an inch to 3/8 of an inch for optimum emergence. For establishment success, consider using high-quality seed such as seed that is rhizobium inoculant coated.

Seeding rates can vary across the country, but generally remain between 12 and 17 pounds per acre for optimum yield. “Planting more seed does not necessarily mean maximization of yield,” noted the extension specialist.

Make the most of your first cutting, as the first cut makes up 35% to 45% of your yearly yield. It is important to discuss cutting schedules and baseline targets with your nutritionist to capitalize on your forage yields. The baseline target for dairy forage has a relative forage quality (RFQ) of 150 to 160, but remember this can drop as stands mature. It is expected that as much as 15% loss in quality from field to bunker can occur, so planning to cut at 185 RFQ is ideal to meet baseline requirements.

An easy and more economical way to estimate alfalfa quality is conducting a predictive equation for quality (PEAQ) test. This can be a good predictive tool most years but utilizing this test in 2024 might be less predictive due to weather abnormalities, revealed Newell.

Before entering the field, perform basic routine checks on planting and harvest equipment. This will save you precious time that could be spent out in the field. Maintain a consistent cutting schedule and consider the impact it will have on your stand. You may want to allow the third or fourth cut to bloom to help replenish the plant’s root stores.

Fertilize to maximize both success and resilience. “If you maximize yield potential and profit margins in one year by not applying any fertilizer, you could be hurting the overall bottom line over the course of that whole stand’s life,” the extension specialist denoted.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
May 13, 2024
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