By Randy Welch
Challenge yourself this year to increase your alfalfa yield and quality. Alfalfa responds to a preplanting plan and timely in-season management.
Here are some tips for evaluating and managing your alfalfa:
1. Treat your alfalfa like a crop! Don’t rely on “windshield scouting” to make decisions. You may be able to evaluate your alfalfa fields using new satellite technology. Making decisions from satellite images may sound like something out of “Star Trek,” but it may be a great way to identify areas in each field with a less than optimal yield. New technology can help you evaluate your seeding methods, crop nutrients needs, insects and disease control.
2. Assess root health and winter damage. Dig alfalfa roots and evaluate plant crowns. Healthy roots mean healthy yields, and roots should be firm and off-white in color. Crowns should show numerous crown buds in early spring. If roots have evidence of damage from winter or have limited crown bud development, it may be time to rotate that field out of production.
3. Gauge stem density. If stand density is below the optimal range of 40 to 55 stems per square foot, yield potential will be lost. To reach this density, about five to seven plants per square foot in mature stands are needed. The temptation is to leave stands in production one year too long. Alfalfa must not be planted back on alfalfa ground for at least two years.
4. Control the weeds. The first 30 to 60 days of an alfalfa seedling’s life are very important. If weed pressure or competition from a cover crop is not controlled, stand and yield potential may be lost for the life of the stand. Using herbicide-tolerant alfalfa can add weed-control options. A fall herbicide application on herbicide-resistant alfalfa can help improve quality by controlling winter annual weeds. This decision will help produce a weed-free, high-quality first crop.
5. Anticipate the crop nutrient needs of each cutting. Use tissue testing in combination with soil tests to make nutrient application decisions. To maximize yield and quality, know the proper nutrition for each cutting. Know your crop’s nutrient needs throughout the season and make the necessary adjustments, including correcting any deficiencies in soil pH, potassium, phosphorus, sulfur or boron.
6. Use new seed technologies to help fix old problems. To improve quality, alfalfa growers have been cutting alfalfa earlier and more frequently. Unfortunately, early and rapid cutting comes at the expense of both yield and stand longevity. Harvest costs of $50 to $80 per acre per cutting are common. By eliminating one cutting, significant savings are possible. By using new genetically modified varieties, the reduction of lignin can result in improved digestibility. If harvest is delayed, yields can be increased and quality maintained. Greater harvest flexibility helps minimize the risk of forage quality loss due to weather, equipment problems or other events that may delay your alfalfa harvest.
So be a hands-on alfalfa manager this season. The added attention you devote to your alfalfa crop this year in preplanting plans and during the season — coupled with asking for new alfalfa technology — will help you improve your yield and quality goals.
Welch is a national alfalfa agronomist with CROPLAN by WinField United. Contact him at [email protected].