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Practices to Try in Alfalfa This Year

Well-known agronomist Darren Hefty is the guest blogger for this post. He and his brother, Brian, are responsible for the popular Ag PhD workshops, TV programs and radio broadcasts. In this post, Darren discusses his ways to improve alfalfa production. What practices do you use to maximize alfalfa tonnage?  

With alfalfa, you get multiple crops per year, allowing you to learn from early mistakes and get it right later. There are many things you can try to improve your tonnage and/or the quality of your alfalfa. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Liquid fertilizer products after each cutting. For each ton of alfalfa, it’s estimated that 50 pounds of K2O potassium and 10 to 15 pounds of phosphate have been removed from the soil. Fertilize between hay cuttings to put nutrients back in the soil.
  2. Fungicide after each cutting at 6 to 8 inches of regrowth. With disease, you must spray before there is a problem. Schedule fungicide applications between cuttings to optimize effectiveness. Here’s the key: Protecting lower leaves from disease will lead to more tonnage and improved feed value.
  3. Use insecticide when insects are present. Spray early. Insects slow regrowth, reduce tonnage and potentially inject disease into alfalfa. With hay’s high value and the low cost of insecticides (often $2 to $3 per acre), it’s an easy decision to treat early.
  4. Weed control. For every pound of weed growth in your field, you’ve lost a pound or more of alfalfa production. Plus, weeds can impact the smell and taste of milk for dairy producers. Hay appearance is also important if you’re selling it. Kill the weeds. Get more tonnage. Get more for your hay.
  5. Plant tissue test to assess nutrient needs. Sample prior to harvest when the plants show regrowth shoots.
  6. Buy a sweep net. This should probably be No.1. You need to get a sweep net. They’re cheap. They’re fun. Used properly, they’re a great indicator of pest levels.
  7. Cut on a schedule. Try cutting by a schedule, rather than when you think you should. A schedule might have to be tweaked based on weather, but most people cut alfalfa 3 to 10 days late and lose feed quality, also delaying the next cutting.
  8. Soil test. Alfalfa tends to get overlooked when it comes to soil testing. Look at pH first. If your soil pH is less than 6.3, you are giving up tonnage. If your soil pH is less than 5.5, you are giving up an incredible amount of tonnage! Address this problem by adding lime.
  9. Sulfur. If you’re seeing yellow, stunted alfalfa, check for sulfur deficiency. At the pre-bud stage, take a tissue sample of the plant’s top 6 inches for a good indication. Sulfur can be applied between cuttings and will take effect right away.

There are often many things you can do on the farm that provide big returns, and those are the things you have to keep looking for, experimenting with and implementing once you see that they pay.

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