Start your alfalfa off right this year

Summer is just around the corner and for many it is synonymous with the sweet smell of alfalfa and the sweaty business of hauling hay. Mike Rankin, managing editor at Hay and Forage Grower, spoke recently about preparing for this year’s crop and why he believes it should be incorporated more often in livestock rations.

“Alfalfa provides real forage, not that corn silage doesn’t, but I think we oftentimes forget that corn silage only provides 50% forage and 50% grain,” Rankin said. “Alfalfa and corn complement each other really well. In fact, there’s some recent research at the Miner Agricultural Research Institute that would suggest 30% to 50% alfalfa coupled with corn silage as a percent of forage in the ration provides the highest component level and yet still maintains the same milk production.”

Planting alfalfa also provides many agronomic benefits. Rankin listed several advantages, including yield enhancement and nitrogen for the subsequent crops, erosion protection, carbon sequestration and deep roots to break up soil. He said alfalfa remains the third or fourth highest value crop in the United States.

“For the first time in two years, there are reasons to believe that hay markets are going to soften a little bit,” Rankin said. “First of all, with the retreat of La Niña we expect more moderate near-term weather patterns and less risk of drought. Secondly, there is a lot of water in the west right now and that’s different than the previous years. Additionally, input prices have come down and potash is about 30% lower than a year ago.”

Furthermore, beef cow numbers are the lowest in several decades due to drought and culling. Rankin said that will lower the demand for hay, and in turn lower the price. He also said lower commodity prices are predicted and hay prices usually follow the trends of commodity prices. The weather is also predicted to be more favorable for the rest of 2023.

Alfalfa fundamentals

Rankin said alfalfa injury and winter kill is always a huge concern this time of year. This can happen when ice blocks air exchange to the alfalfa crowns. Toxic metabolites such as ethanol, methanol and lactic acid then accumulate and kill the plant.

“Like alfalfa markets, it’s often regional in nature,” Rankin said. “One year an area will be hit hard and the next year it’s a different area that is impacted. Winter kill has been and is a big mystery to a large part regarding alfalfa.”

Rankin said fields usually aren’t 100% dead, but they can be partially dead or dead in certain areas. At this point, producers have to decide to either leave the field as it is or interseed the field.

“You can cut the first cutting and then plant corn, if you are short on forage,” Rankin explained. “You can also come back in and put in a warm season annual such as sorghum sudan grass or forage sorghum or you can interseed red clover, rye grass or a perennial grass.”

New stand establishment is arguably the most crucial step with growing alfalfa. Rankin said the most important factors for stand establishment are getting the pH right, managing herbicide carryover, a seeding depth of a quarter- to a half-inch and ensuring good seed-to-soil contact.

“It’s also really important to start with good genetics,” Rankin said. “It’s no different than dairy cows as far as picking a variety that’s disease resistant and performs well.”

However, Rankin said there is minimal if any third-party alfalfa variety testing programs in most states.

“You’re often at the mercy of the marketer. Make sure wherever you’re getting your alfalfa that you work with a trusted marketer and have a good relationship with that person.”

Rankin also advised growers to invest in quality seed rather than trying to cut corners with inferior products.

“Your seed cost is a pretty minimal amount of your total production cost for alfalfa when you consider you’re going to pro-rate it over several years and look at the cost of some of the other things that are involved in producing alfalfa,” he said. “Even with a fairly good variety, you basically get your seed cost back with the nitrogen credit that alfalfa provides on the back end.”

When it comes to the perfect seeding rate, the jury is still out.

“There isn’t a perfect seeding rate, but there are things to keep in mind,” Rankin said. “First of all, you have to realize that every 5 pounds of pure live seed that you drop out there equates to about 25 seeds per square foot. If you’re seeding 15 pounds of seed per acres, that’s about 75 seeds per square foot. You won’t establish anywhere close to that number. Alfalfa’s batting average for establishing productive alfalfa plants is pretty low.”

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Rankin said higher seeding rates mean a higher percentage of the plants that will weed themselves out from competition. He said seeding rates do not have to be as high as some people might think.

“If you do have higher densities in the seeding year, you’re going to have taller plants,” he explained. “Stems per plant is really what we’re concerned about and that’s directly correlated with your plant density. If you have a lower density, you’re going to have more stems.”

When it’s time to harvest

Rankin said when it comes to harvest of an alfalfa field, the first cutting is different from all others. One of the main reasons is that it has a different growing weather environment from all other cuttings. Rankin said fiber digestibility in the first cutting is usually at its highest for the year, but in certain situations it can be at its lowest if the field is cut too late.

“With the first cutting, the decline in forage quality is more rapid than it is for any of the other cuttings, aside from a late fall cutting,” Rankin explained.

Because of this, he said producers can find ways to estimate forage quality, such as sending in fresh cut samples for testing. In addition to high fiber digestibility, the first cutting typically provides the highest yield of the year for any one cutting.

“Whatever happens at first cut, you’re going to live with for a while,” Rankin said. “The first cutting always sets the pace for the rest of the year. It’s important to get it done timely so there’s still enough moisture out there to get that second crop up and moving.”

When it comes to yield limitations, the culprit is always water.

“The problem is alfalfa doesn’t have a growing season, it has growing seasons,” he said. “Every cutting is its own growing season and if you have two weeks of dry weather, that has a huge impact on that next cutting or the one after.”

Managing the unique characteristics of this crop can be a challenge, but this super forage can make up for all the headaches with its value in the livestock industry.

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].