Get The Most From Your Alfalfa Crop

There are a number of management practices that can help boost yields of top-quality alfalfa.

Published on: Apr 24, 2013

With skyrocketing alfalfa costs due to the drought, getting the most from your alfalfa is more important this year than ever before. Baled alfalfa hay has been fetching between $270 and $350 a ton this spring.

"These are the highest prices we've ever seen," says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension and research forage agronomist. "Even in the drought of 1988, we didn't see hay prices above $200 a ton."

Every ton of optimum-quality haylage or baled hay produced is one less ton of expensive feed you have to buy for your cows.

"Hay prices will likely remain high all summer because there is no carryover," he explains. "We need to do everything we can to grow as much alfalfa as possible."

Since the first cutting of alfalfa equals 35 %to 40% of the total season yield, on-time harvest is critical. Photo by Harlen Persinger
Since the first cutting of alfalfa equals 35 %to 40% of the total season yield, on-time harvest is critical. Photo by Harlen Persinger

According to Undersander, optimizing alfalfa quantity is just as important as producing high-quality alfalfa.

"Managing alfalfa properly can mean the difference between a 3-ton- or 6-ton per-acre yield," Undersander says. He notes that a number of management practices can help you obtain high yields of top-quality alfalfa. They include:

Don't cut back on fertilizer. "Undersander says a lot of alfalfa stands will be short on potassium this year and possibly sulfur going into the second cutting. Alfalfa needs 250 pounds of potassium oxide, or K2O, and 30 pounds of sulfur per acre. "This is not a year to cut back on fertilizer," he advises.

 "Some farmers may want to skip fertilizing this year because money is tight. If they do, they will cut yield and the life of the stand," he says. "The stand will be less likely to survive next winter if it's not fertilized."

Ideally, Undersander says, alfalfa should be fertilized within a week of cutting first crop.

Ensure good stand density. When stand density falls below 40 stems per square foot, the stand is limiting yield. Alfalfa stands should have 55 stems per square foot or more.

"You would not plant corn or soybeans at a low stand density — why keep a thin alfalfa stand that is low yielding?" Undersander asks.

Minimize storage losses. Pack well and cover well. If you're wrapping alfalfa our putting it in a tube, remove ground cover 50 to 100 feet around the bag so mice can't get up close and chew holes in the bag.

Cut short. Yields can rise by a half ton per acre for each inch shorter alfalfa is cut, down to 1.5 inches.

Harvest on time. Since the first cutting of alfalfa equals about 35% to 40% of the total season yield and is often used to refill silos, on-time harvest is critical. "First cutting is the highest yielding crop," Undersander notes. Harvest as soon as the crop is ready. Early first cutting allows second cutting to start earlier under cooler, wetter weather and yield more.

Minimize driving in the field. "While some traffic is necessary for harvesting, each trip across the field damages the stand and reduces the next cutting's yield," Undersander says. Eliminate unnecessary trips across a field as soon as possible after cutting. Each day traffic occurs after a cutting is taken causes an additional 6% yield loss from the next cutting. "So it's a big deal," he says.

Set The Schedule For Hay Quality. Deciding when to make the first cutting of hay sets the stage for the rest of the year. Download our FREE report Bailing Up Hay-Making Costs: A Buyer's Guide  today.