Lollato shares best practices for managing high-yielding alfalfa at event 

Romulo Lollato. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

Romulo Lollato, Kansas State University associate professor of agronomy and wheat and forage specialist, discussed high-yielding alfalfa management at the Feb. 27 Alfalfa U in Dodge City, Kansas. 

Lollato went back to the basics and said one of the most important decisions when working to establish an alfalfa stand is deciding if it’s going to be planted in the fall or spring. Planting dates vary widely across the region, but in Kansas, alfalfa is most often planted Aug. 15 to Sept. 10 or April 20 to May 10.  

“The further north and west we go, the earlier in the fall we need to plant because of both temperatures later on,” he said. “We need enough development of the crop before the onset of the colder temperature later in the winter and the other way around for a spring.” 

Alfalfa plants tend to live a bit longer in the fall as temperatures cool. Although it is tough to wait to plant in some instances, waiting for optimal planting conditions could benefit the alfalfa stand in the long run.  

One consideration when looking at fall versus spring planted stands is in the fall the alfalfa plant must have at least three to five of the trifoliate leaves out before winter dormancy.  

“(This is) to make sure to have good potential for winter survival rather than just paying attention to planting date for a fall development before the winter comes about,” Lollato said. “For spring planting we are at a greater danger of frost before then if we plant too early.” 

That might not be the biggest problem, however. 

“We do (tend to) have more moisture usually for germination establishment in the spring, but we do have lower establishment moisture now,” he said.  

Some spring alfalfa crops can be lower yielding. They also have increased potential for weed competition. Fall planted alfalfa doesn’t have much weed pressure because of decreasing temperatures. 

“The crop has maybe a month or two or even three before important winter weeds start to germinate, and that allows the crop to have more competition ability early on,” he said.  

When it comes to seeding rates for alfalfa, producers should consider the weight of any seed coatings that have been applied.  

“We’re thinking that some of those seeds might have up to 30% of their weight in coating,” he said. 

For central Kansas, 13 to 18 pounds of seed per acre might be ideal, Lollato said. Irrigated seed rates could be higher.  

“But the important thing going from pounds per acre to the amount of seeds out there are our plants,” he said. “We’re targeting the end of that first year 30 to 35 or so plants per square foot. If we put a lot more out there, it’s going to self-thin and bring down to probably very close to that population.” 

The second year the plants will probably grow at a rate of about eight to 10 plants per square foot, but the number of stems per square foot is important.  

“As long as we are at or above around 55 or so stems per square foot, that stand has a pretty decent yield potential,” Lollato said. “So again, using stems per square foot as a way to have a good idea where that stand is is probably a better bet.” 

Inoculated seed is preferred for some early season diseases and can help with improving nitrogen fixation. 

“We can have a good idea of that if we look at the inert material on that bag,” he said. 

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Soil preparation is important as well. Soil should be firm and moist, with seeds placed not too deeply, although sandier soils may merit deeper placement. Lollato said also to watch for herbicide carryover from neighboring fields or when planting into corn or sorghum stubble.  

“That causes a lot of issues in stand establishment—planting in loose soils where there’s no really good seed to soil contact,” he said. “Make sure that seed can actually (reach) water and really get off to a good start.” 

In southwest and central Kansas soil pH levels can also be a major concern.  

 Producers should also be cognizant of possible insect and disease resistance available in the variety of alfalfa selected, depending upon geographic location.  

“But it all comes back to being a four-to-six-year investment, right?” Lollato said. “You really make all of these important decisions on year one, as well as we can with the information that we have.” 

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].