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Consider these spring-planted forage options

he challenging growing conditions of 2018 have left many dairy farms short on forage supplies. So, going into the 2019 growing season, what are some options to bolster forage inventories?

Mark Sulc, Ohio State University (OSU) Extension forage specialist, and Bill Weiss, OSU Extension dairy specialist, discuss the options available to farmers and some considerations to keep in mind in an article published in the Buckeye Dairy News newsletter.

Options

The authors emphasize that corn silage is the number one choice for an annual forage in terms of overall yield and nutritive value. The following options are acceptable short-season forages that can be used to make ends meet, especially if alfalfa winterkill is an issue.

  • Oats: Better adapted to cool, wet soils, and there are several forage varieties available.
  • Spring barley: Usually produces tonnage a little lower than oats or triticale and performs best on well-drained soils. Barley is the earliest maturing for small grains planted in the spring.
  • Spring triticale: A cross between wheat and rye. It is well adapted across a variety of soils and tolerates a low soil pH better than wheat but not to the extent of rye.
  • Italian ryegrass: A biennial with a possible second year production, depending on winter conditions. It is quick to establish and provides high yields of high-quality forage. Forage will be ready to harvest 60 days following seeding and then at 25- to 30-day intervals following for the rest of the first year.

“Plant high-quality seed of a named variety to avoid unpleasant surprises,” the authors recommend. For small grain mixes, reduce the seeding rate of each component to 70 percent of the full rate. Forage peas can be added to the mix to raise crude protein levels.

Small grains can be planted 1.5 inches deep as early as soil conditions allow, while Italian ryegrass should be planted between April 1 and May 1 no more than 0.5 inches deep.

“A burn down application of glyphosate is a cost-effective weed control practice prior to planting,” the authors comment. Additional nitrogen may be needed at 30 to 50 pounds per acre at planting, but manure application can reduce some or all of this needed nitrogen. Italian ryegrass will need about 50 pounds per acre after the first or second harvest.

Harvest timing matters

“Maturity affects composition more than species does,” the authors state. The nutritional value of small grain forages declines rapidly with maturity.

When harvested at the preboot stage, small grain forages will have around 20 percent crude protein (CP), which varies with the amount of additional nitrogen applied. It will usually test about 40 percent neutral detergent fiber (NDF), 30 percent acid detergent fiber (ADF), and have an in vitro digestibility of around 80 percent. Dry matter (DM) yields will range between 1.5 and 2.4 tons per acre.

“Small grain forages harvested in the boot stage have energy concentrations similar to corn silage but with greater concentrations of protein,” the authors explain.

At the milk stage, plants have an average of 12 percent CP, 48 percent NDF, 35 percent ADF, and an in vitro digestibility of 62 percent; they have about 10 percent less energy than corn silage. This nutritional content is similar to alfalfa. Dry matter yields generally range from 3 to 4 tons per acre.

According to the authors, Italian ryegrass planted in central Ohio produced 2.5 to 4.6 tons of DM per acre in the first year and 1 to 4.5 tons of DM per acre in the second. An NDF content of around 50 percent and CP concentrations between 12 and 16 percent can be expected.

If Italian ryegrass is fed as the sole source of forage, milk production will be less than what is seen with corn silage. But according to the authors, if it comprises 15 to 20 percent of the diet’s DM, milk production, composition, and feed efficiency are good. The authors do warn that ryegrass is typically high in potassium, so make sure to supplement magnesium.

Above all, the authors recommend testing all harvested forages to provide accurate nutritional values for balancing rations.

Tough to dry

If mechanically harvesting, chopping and ensiling or making baleage are the best options; getting the material to wilt enough for dry bales is a challenge.

Grazing is an effective and affordable alternative to utilizing these forages. Small grains that are young and lush can cause bloat, so feeding a high-quality grass hay, silage, or bloat preventative can help.

To reduce potential problems with off-flavored milk, remove lactating dairy cattle from small grain forages at least two hours prior to milking.


Use Science to Increase Forage Yield

By: Gary Bates, Professor and Director, University of Tennessee Beef and Forage Center

Everyone wants to increase yield.  Usually it means providing more of some type of input.  Maybe more fertilizer, or irrigation, or some other thing that will make plants grow at a faster rate.  But there is a simple way to make our pastures grow faster and produce greater yield.  It involves simply understanding and manipulating a simple principle of plant physiology.  That principle is that plants grow at the fastest rate when they have plenty of leaves to capture sunlight, and the leaves are relatively young so they are very efficient at the photosynthetic process.

Figure 1 illustrates the three phases of plant growth.  In phase 1, the plant doesn’t have much leaf area to capture sunlight.  In order to grow leaves, it has to take stored energy from the roots and crown of the plant for the growth.  It then moves into phase 2, when the plant has plenty of young, efficient leaves.  During this phase, the plant produces plenty of energy for growth, as well as replace the stored energy used during phase 1.  As the plant continues to grow, the leaves get older and less efficient at photosynthesis.  The plant also produces a seedhead, which means it is trying to produce seed instead of leaves.  This results in a decrease in the growth rate of the plant.


Figure 1. Three phases of plant growth

A simple way to increase the yield of a pasture is to concentrate on keeping your grasses in the phase 2 of plant growth.  That means to make sure you leave enough leaf area so the plants can capture plenty of sunlight.  But don’t let the plants go to a reproductive state, meaning they are producing seedheads.  Staying in phase 2 will improve yield, because that is the phase where the growth rate is the highest.

How do you accomplish that?  You have to have some type of rotational grazing program, where you control where the animals graze and how long they stay in the paddock.  If you find that the forage growth is getting ahead of you in the spring, then cut hay from some of the fields.  If you find forage growth is getting slow during the summer, you can do a better job preventing overgrazing.

There is no need to make rotational grazing extremely complicated.  The principle is controlling plant growth through where the animals graze.  This will ultimately improve yield, plant persistence, and the production of forage and beef on your farm.

Broomsedge indicates a larger problem

Not all weeds are created equal in terms of their impact on forage quality and pasture productivity. Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), a native warm-season perennial grass, is a weed with few, if any, positive attributes other than it slaps you in the face to say soil pH and fertility are likely waning.

Known as an indicator plant, broomsedge most often fills voids left bare by more desirable pasture species. Usually, a soil test of these pastures will reveal either a very low soil pH and/or deficient phosphorus levels.

It’s also possible that a low soil pH is inhibiting phosphorus uptake.

“Cattle will only eat broomsedge for a short time in early spring,” says Dirk Philipp, a forage research scientist with the University of Arkansas. “As such, maintaining adequate phosphorus fertility, soil pH, and having a good pasture management plan is needed to keep broomsedge at bay. The avoidance of overgrazing will help to eliminate or minimize broomsedge issues.”

Philipp also notes that allelopathic chemicals in broomsedge prevent other plants from germinating around them. This enhances its ability to compete with desirable forage species.

Preventing broomsedge from establishing is easier than trying to control it once it does appear. Other than spot spraying with glyphosate, which will also kill other desirable species, there are no good chemical options for broomsedge control.

Researching varieties pays dividends

While it may still be winter, the time to start thinking about spring planting is now. A part of that thinking and planning process is choosing adapted and high-performance forage varieties.

In The Ohio State University (OSU) Ohio Beef Cattle Letter, OSU Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator Christine Gelley discusses what to keep in mind when selecting future forage genetics for your farm or ranch.

Know the difference

Let’s begin with a quick review about the differences between species, varieties, and cultivars.

In plant terms, a species is a plant that is distinctly different from other plants in features and characteristics, meaning that other plants of the same species will share similar characteristics. For example, think red clover versus ladino clover; both are clovers, but two distinctly different species.

A variety is a variation of a plant characteristic that still falls within the range of characteristics of a species. “Think of varieties as species variations that occur in nature without human interaction,” Gelley explains.

While varieties are naturally occurring, humans select for cultivars. These cultivars often bear a trade name that is marketed by the seed company. In spite of the difference between a variety and a cultivar, it remains a common practice for a cultivar to be referred to as a variety.

“By the time you are ready to shop for seed, have your species selected and a few potential cultivars on your list of acceptable choices,” Gelley advises.

Regional requirements

To narrow down your choices even further, look at results of regionally conducted forage variety tests. “If you are farming in Ohio and shopping based on variety performance trials conducted in Tennessee, you may end up unsatisfied with your results,” Gelley explains.

Pay attention to variables in the trial, including total rainfall, soil and air temperatures, soil type, fertilizer and pesticide applications, and the number of years evaluated. Trials that were conducted over the span of several years are typically more trustworthy.

Also consider who is conducting the trials. Many land-grant universities conduct forage trials and are unbiased. Performance trials by seed companies can be reliable, but keep in mind that they are trying to get you to buy their product instead of a competitor’s.

Know the supplier

Once you have a short list of varieties that will fit your farm and needs, shop with a reputable supplier. They should have clean facilities, knowledgeable staff, and good customer service.

“Contact the seed dealer with your cultivar list and have a conversation about what you are looking for and what they can offer,” Gelley recommends. She also advises looking at the seed tags and comparing production dates, germination rates, and the percentage of pure live seed.

“For your best chance at success, do your research before you shop, rather than settling for whatever is in stock at the local co-op,” Gelley says.

Keep records

After selecting, purchasing, and planting your cultivar, keep note of observations you make throughout the year. This includes seeding date, planting rate and depth, weather conditions, germination success or failure, weed pressure, and animal preference.

Perform your own experiment

“If you can’t decide between one cultivar and another, get more than one and start your own on-farm research project,” Gelley suggests.

Plant the cultivars in the same location under similar conditions. As you go through their production cycle, apply the same inputs and harvest the same way all while taking notes and making observations. The results may surprise you.


Potentials for Plant and Other Toxicities in Cattle

While Johnsongrass is a good quality forage, it can be challenging to control in pastures where the perennial, warm-season grass is not desired. Prussic acid production under stress can pose a risk to livestock when grazing Johnsongrass, especially during prolonged droughts or after a frost.
( Dirk Philipp, University of Arkansas )

Fortunately, there has been plenty of rain this year. However, heading into late summer and fall are times of the year to watch out for plant toxicity in cattle.  In some cases, plants can become more toxic during drought and heat stress.  In addition, there is the increased potential for cattle to ingest toxic plants due to lack of other feedstuffs.  There may also be more access to toxic plants.  With droughts come increased weed infestation of pastures, hay and crop fields.   Penned cattle may also be in corrals or drawn to low lying areas that are still green, both of which are where toxic plants are likely to grow.  Differentiating “good” vs. “bad” plants is a learned behavior, so toxicity is more likely in young animals and animals moved to a new location.  A grazing management and supplemental feeding plan is essential to minimize problems.  Veterinarians and producers should be familiar with which plants can cause problems in their area, and try to avoid them.  The following discussion covers some of the plants and situations to watch for during drought situations.  There may be plants that grow some regions that are not covered.

Stressed plants more readily accumulate nitrates and prussic acid (cyanide).  Drought stress can cause both pasture forages and weeds to accumulate toxic amounts of nitrates.  Recently fertilized pastures are also at higher risk.  Plants that have accumulated nitrates remain toxic after baling or ensiling.  Test forages for nitrates to prevent poisoning.  Prussic acid accumulates most often in sorghums, sudans and Johnsongrasses, but these plants can accumulate nitrates also.  There is no test for prussic acid, but it dissipates when plants are baled or ensiled, so harvested forages are safe.  Cattle poisoned by nitrates or prussic acid are usually found dead, so prevention of these toxicities is critical.   Cattle with nitrate toxicity have methemoglobinemia (brown blood) and cattle with prussic acid toxicity have cyanohemoglobinemia (bright, cherry red blood).  Nitrate and prussic acid both interfere with oxygen carrying capacity in the blood, so pregnant cattle surviving these poisonings often abort.

Two of the most toxic plants found in croplands and pastures are coffeeweed and sickle pod.  Cattle will generally not graze the green plant unless other forages are scarce.  However, they will readily eat the seedpods that are dry after a frost.  The plant remains toxic when harvested in hay/balage/silage.   Coffeeweed and sicklepod are toxic to muscles and cause weakness, diarrhea, dark urine, and inability to rise.  There is no specific treatment or antidote, and once animals are down, they rarely recover.

Pigweed or carelessweed is very common in areas where cattle congregate.  Cattle will readily eat the young plants, but avoid the older plants unless forced to eat them.  A common pigweed poisoning is when cattle are penned where pigweed is the predominant plant and no alternative hay or feed is provided.  Red root pigweed is more toxic than spiny root pigweed, but is less common.  Pigweed can accumulate nitrates, so sudden death is the most common outcome.  It also contains oxalates, so renal failure can also occur.

Black nightshade is common in croplands, and like pigweed, in often in high traffic areas.   The green fruit is most toxic, so cattle should not have access to nightshade during this stage, and nightshade remains toxic in harvested forages.  Nightshade is toxic to the nervous and gastrointestinal systems, and causes weakness, depression, diarrhea, and muscle trembling among other signs.  Bullnettle and horsenettle are in the same plant family as nightshade.  They are also toxic, although less so, and are usually avoided by livestock unless other forages are not available.

Blue-green algae blooms in ponds can also occur in hot weather.  They are most common in ponds with high organic matter, such as ponds where cattle are allowed to wade, or where fertilizer runoff occurs.  The blue-green algae accumulates along pond edges, especially in windy conditions, and exposes cattle when they drink.  Both the live and dead algae are toxic.  The toxins can affect the neurologic system causing convulsions and death, sometimes right next to the source.  They can also affect the liver, causing a delayed syndrome of weight loss, and photosensitization (skin peeling in sparsely haired or white haired areas).

Perilla mint causes acute bovine pulmonary edema and emphysema (ABPE), usually in late summer.  It grows in most of the central and eastern United States and is common in partial shade in sparsely wooded areas, and around barns and corrals.   There is no treatment, so prevention is critical.

Cattle with access to wooded areas may eat bracken fern.  Cattle must eat roughly their body weight over time before toxicity occurs, but may do this in situations where other forage is not available. Braken fern toxicosis causes aplastic anemia.  Fever, anemia, hematuria, and secondary infections are some of the most common signs.

As summer moves into fall, the potential for acorn toxicosis increases.  Cattle have to eat large amounts usually to become sick, but those that are in poor body condition and hungry are more likely to do so.  Clinical signs include constipation or dark, foul-smelling diarrhea, dark nasal discharge, depression, weakness and weight loss.

The lack of summer forages and the need for supplemental feeding during a drought can increase the likelihood of feeding “accidents” and toxicities.  Producers may be tempted to feed cattle pruning’s of ornamental plants, many of which are highly toxic.  Grain overload is also a potential problem if access to concentrate feeds are not controlled.  Salt toxicity can occur if hungry cattle are allowed free access to high salt containing “hotmixes”.  Even though these are meant to limit intake, initial intake can be high enough to cause toxicity in starved or salt deprived cattle.  Feeding byproduct feeds, candy, bread, screenings, etc. may also be more common, all of which have the potential to cause problems.  Producers may also be tempted to feed moldy hay or feed, which can lead to toxicity problems.

With careful planning, plant toxicities can be avoided. If you have questions on toxic plants and how to identify/avoid them, please contact your local veterinarian or Extension agent. If you have further questions please feel free to contact me at, lstrick5@utk.edu, or 865-974-3538.

To bloom or not to bloom?

By Kassidy Buse

A common recommendation of agronomists is to let one alfalfa cutting reach bloom each year.

Ev Thomas, retired agronomist from the Miner Research Institute in Chazy, N.Y., says otherwise in The William H Miner Agricultural Research Institute Farm Report.

“For many years, I’ve said that in managing alfalfa for dairy cows, you should never see an alfalfa blossom, from seeding to plowdown,” says Thomas.

Thomas also notes there’s room for difference of opinion due to no research supporting either opinion.

But, if one cutting is to bloom, which cutting should it be?

The first cut of alfalfa-grass typically contains the most grass. Grass, even the late-maturing species, is close to heading when alfalfa is in the late bud stage.

The second cut is exposed to long, hot June days that result in highly lignified, fine stems. A Miner Institute trial found that the stem quality of bud-stage second-cut alfalfa was no better than full-bloom first-cut alfalfa.

The third cut can be influenced by prior harvest management. If it was a late second cutting, the third cut was growing during midsummer heat. This cut would also have highly lignified stems.

The fourth cut often takes a long time to bloom, if it makes it there. A killing frost might arrive first.

For any cutting, the more grass in the stand, the lower the forage quality if alfalfa is left to bloom.

“The objective of letting alfalfa bloom is to improve root reserves, and therefore extend stand life,” says Thomas. “We need to balance the impact of delayed harvest on plant health with the economics of feeding alfalfa of lower quality that is needed by today’s high-producing dairy cows,” Thomas adds.

How alfalfa and alfalfa-grass is managed depends on if the goal in mind is long stand life or high milk production potential.

Cutting Height in Hay Fields: How Low Can You Go?

The second consequence for mowing too close to the ground is increased ash content of the forage. All forage has a natural ash content of approximately 6%. However, mowing too closely with disk mowers can add soil to the crop, and increase the ash content by as much as 10-12% (18% ash content in total analysis). If we all had table-top smooth fields, it would also be much easier to make a closer cut across all fields. However, things such as groundhog holes and the unevenness of fields can add to increased ash content of our harvested forage.

So, the million dollar question is how low can you go? The best answer is…it depends! The first question I always ask is – is it a solid stand or a mixed stand? If you have grasses involved, you must keep cutting height higher than a pure stand of legume, if you want to keep the grass in the stand. Keep in mind these are minimum recommendations; it’s okay to mow higher than the numbers below. Here are my minimum cutting height recommendations:

Alfalfa or Clover

  • 2” minimum. Some literature shows a cutting height of 1” will not reduce stand longevity, but remember the increased ash content issue. Also, keep in mind that frequent cutting at early maturity will continue to deplete carbohydrate reserves. One cutting of alfalfa should be allowed to reach the bloom stage each year.

Cool Season Grasses (Orchardgrass, Timothy)

  • 4”during the establishment year
  • 3” minimum during production years. This is where we see most of our stand longevity issues. Frequent cutting of cool season grasses at a low height will continue to deplete energy reserves.

Mixed stands

  • You must manage for the predominant species. Do you have a grass stand with some alfalfa, or an alfalfa stand with some grass?
  • Alfalfa with some grass: 2.5” minimum
  • Grass with some alfalfa: 3” minimum (if you want to keep the grass sta

FEC and FAMACHA

Fecal Egg Counting
and FAMACHA© workshop

When:   June 2, 2018 9AM–3pm

WHERE: University of Delaware REC
16686 County Seat Highway
Georgetown, DE 19947

COST:    $25 (check or money order)*

Learn Parasite Control

University of Delaware
Susan Garey
Daniel Severson
Delaware State University
Kwame Matthews

Internal parasites are a major health problem affecting sheep and goats. This workshop is designed to help producers learn the basics of selective internal parasite control. Join us as we provide hands-on training to certify producers in the use of FAMACHA© score card and fecal egg counts.

Presented jointly by:
 

Register online: https://hub.desu.edu/Famacha-Workshop-DSU-UD2018

 

Lunch included!

Limited to 25 attendees!

Pre-register by May 25, 2018!

Log on!
Register today!

Only $25 per person!*

*Make checks or money orders payable to:
Delaware State University
Mail to:
Dr. Kwame Matthews

For more information, for registration payments, or for assistance due to disabilities
contact:

Kwame Matthews, Ph.D.
Cooperative Extension
Small Ruminant Program
Delaware State University
1200 N. Dupont Hwy
Dover, DE 19901

302.857.6540

Facebook.com/DSUSmallRuminantProgram


FEC and FAMACHA© Workshop Registration

Limited to 25 attendees. Please complete the following questions to register or register online at the above link for the FEC and FAMACHA© Workshop. Cost is $25 per person. Check or money order can be sent to: Dr. Kwame Matthews, 1200 N. DuPont Hwy, Dover, DE 19901. Please make checks out to Delaware State University. Thank you! Pre-register by May 25, 2018!

  1. Please complete the registration information below.

First and Last Name: ___________________________________________________

Street Address: _______________________________________________________

City: _____________________________ State: ____________ Zip Code: _________

Email:  __________________________________ Phone: _____________________

  1. Please choose your sex: Male or       Female
  2. What is your age? 17-29 30-49                                    50+
  3. What is your race?

White or Caucasian ___     Black or African American ___             American Indian/Alaskan Native ___ Asian ___            Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander ___     Hispanic or Latino ___

Two or more races ___       Other (please specify): _______________________

  1. What small ruminant are you raising? Goat Sheep                         Both

Other (please specify) ___________________________________________________

  1. What is the purpose of raising? Milk Meat                                    Fiber

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  1. How did you hear about our training?

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  1. I’m available for future trainings:

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  1. Please feel free to include any questions you may have here:

 

 

Hay Cost Calculator

Hay season is around the corner and many producers are likely greasing the wheels, sharpening blades, checking belt tension, and settling in for a long hay season. However, it may be wise to do some calculating and revisit some management decisions to determine hay needs and to see if there is a way to reduce hay needs. This could be important considering the tremendous cost of feeding cattle 365 days per year and knowing hay tends to be one of the most expensive feeds available.

In order to achieve the task of determining how much hay is needed and what the potential cost will be, Mr. Kevin Ferguson, Ms. Rebekah Norman, and Ms. Tammy McKinley developed an Excel based “Hay Calculator” to help with the calculations. That file can be found at https://ag.tennessee.edu/arec/Pages/decisionaidtools.aspx. The tool takes into account storage losses, feeding losses, bale size and weight, cattle weight, consumption, number of days fed, and hay price to determine hay needs and total cost. The calculator can also assist with hay quality analysis.

Based on several pieces of research, the method of storing and feeding hay significantly increase costs. Average storage losses for hay stored six months or longer range from 5 percent for hay in a barn to 30 percent for hay stored outside and uncovered. Hay stacked and covered with a tarp on a rock pad or pallets results in 12 and 14 percent loss respectively. Additional storage methods include a plastic sleeve and net wrap which result in average losses of 19 and 23 percent respectively.

Similar to storage, the method of feeding hay can influence hay loss. Feeding losses from feeding hay in a cone ring range from 2 to 5 percent while feeding hay in a conventional ring results in 4 to 7 percent hay loss. The use of a hay trailer generally results in 10 to 13 percent hay feeding losses while the use of a cradle will result in 15 to 20 percent losses. Unrolling hay on the ground has the most variability with losses ranging from 5 percent to 45 percent. Hay feeding losses are likely more a function of how much hay is fed at a time as opposed to the method. For instance, feeding a week’s worth of hay in a cone ring will result in more feeding loss than feeding one day of hay in a cone ring.

For illustration purposes, consider a producer with 30 cows averaging 1,200 pounds and feeding 2.5 percent of the cows body weight for 150 days. This would result in each cow needing 30 pounds of hay each day on a dry matter basis. Assuming 11 percent moisture would result in the herd needing 76 tons of hay or 152, 1,000 pound bales. If the bales cost $35 per bale then the total cost to the herd would be $5,320. However, storage and feeding loss have not been considered.

Now consider two management options with this herd: storing hay in a barn and feeding in a cone ring or storing net wrapped hay outside and feeding in a conventional ring. The first system of storing hay in a barn and feeding in a cone ring results in a total loss of 6.4 tons of hay or 13 bales of hay for an additional hay cost of $451 for the herd. The second system of storing net wrapped hay outside and feeding in a conventional hay ring results in a total loss of 21.6 tons of hay resulting in the need of 43 additional bales of hay and adding $1,513 to herd hay cost.

This basic illustration demonstrates changes in feed costs from differing hay storage and feeding management. Producers should consider methods of reducing hay storage and feeding losses to reduce total costs. Producers should also consider grazing management practices that reduce hay needs which have a potential of reducing feed costs.

Planning for the Alfalfa Growing Season

Planning for the growing season this year has been a little different than in previous years. The winter season seemed to be longer than usual and has producers wondering when they would be able to access their fields. Here is a bit of information for those producers that are considering planting alfalfa this year.

Field Selection

Establishment of alfalfa seed require a well-drained soil for optimum production. A germination soil temperature of 45oF is adequate for alfalfa establishment. Achieving a profitable stand of alfalfa is the result of proper field selection utilizing proven production practices to ensure germination and establishment. Poor soil drainage can cause problems with soil crusting which may cause poor soil aeration, micronutrient toxicity, and ice damage during winter.

Soil Fertility

It is important to remember to ALWAYS take soil samples before planting to determine pH and nutrient status of the field. Overall, there are 18 nutrients (macronutrients and micronutrients) essential for alfalfa growth. Some of these nutrients include:

  • Phosphorus: Helps root growth and increase seeding success. Low fertility soils can be improved with an application of 30-50 lbs per acre of P2O5, depending on soil test results.
  • Potassium: Research suggests that potassium has little effect or influence on improving stand establishment, however, adequate potassium should be added to meet the needs of alfalfa and even a companion crop.

Planting Alfalfa

Failure to successfully establish alfalfa can be expensive and may lead to issues related to production soil erosion. Some considerations for planting alfalfa include: (1) seedbed preparation; (2) seeding dates; (3) seeding depth and rate; (4) whether or not to seed with a companion crop; (5) 100% alfalfa seedings vs. alfalfa-grass mixtures.

  1. Seedbed preparation 
    Having a firm seedbed is a critical step to ensure good germination of alfalfa seed. Firm seedbeds will reduce the possibility of planting too deep and will help hold moisture closer to the surface. Packing the soil will help to insure a firm seedbed and good soil moisture retention.
  2. Seeding dates
    Determining when to plant alfalfa depends on several factors such as soil moisture and cropping practices. For best results in South Dakota alfalfa should be seeded between mid-April to mid-May. This all depends on weather conditions as well. This year might be safe to say that seeding alfalfa in mid-May might be the best option for producers.
  3. Seeding depth and rate 
    Seed should be covered with enough soil to provide moist conditions for germination. Seed placement of ¼ to ½ inch deep is appropriate on most soils at rates from 10 to 25 lb seed/acre.
  4. Seeding with or without a companion crop 
    Seeding alfalfa with a companion crop such as annual ryegrass, oats, spring barley, or spring triticale can help to minimize weed competition during establishment. However, planting alfalfa without a companion crop allows producers to harvest more alfalfa with higher quality in the seeding year.
  5. 100% alfalfa seedings vs. alfalfa-grass mixtures 
    Pure stands of alfalfa will produce the highest quality forage and for that reason has the highest demand from the dairy industry. Other producers whose animals’ nutrient requirements are lower may be interested in using alfalfa/grass blends to take advantage of improved persistency while still meeting the nutrient requirements of their livestock. Alfalfa-grass mixtures also offers some advantages such as reduced weed pressure and soil erosion.

The Bottom Line

It is always handy to remember that the first harvest seeding year is when alfalfa is seeded in the spring and considerations of taking one or two cuttings in the same year need to be made by then. The first harvest should be done after the flowers begin to appear, allowing greater energy reserves in the roots. Generally, alfalfa will reach this stage of development 60 to 70 days after emergence. Harvesting delays during this stage will cause large reductions in quality and a decline in total yield over the season because fewer harvests are possible.

I hope this growing season is another successful one. We might be a little slow this year; but that does not mean we won’t be able to achieve the goals for production.