Pushing the Alfalfa Yield and Quality Bar

One of the most common questions offered to us via phone, email, or social media refers to accessing products and account personnel, but perhaps the most common inquiry is how to take alfalfa stands to the next level, and truly micromanage the crop to surpass yield and quality goals. We hear about intense, highly-controlled, strategic management in corn, soybean, wheat and other crops – but what about alfalfa?

Many dynamics play in exceeding expectations, i.e. weather, input costs and their return, water regulations, ongoing surface and subsoil moisture deficits, pest incidence and more. There’s no magic bullet to taking stands the next level, but it does require an integrated approach.

Fertility - Alfalfa responds well to increased fertility, and thus more than adequate base soil fertility, especially at pH levels in the 6.7-7.2 range. Per dry matter (DM) ton, alfalfa removes about a 60-15-60 (nitrogen is mainly taken up as atmospheric N), so paying close attention to potassium and phosphorus are important via soil test and tissue test if needed. Applying sulfur, especially in low organic matter soils is advised (alfalfa removes 5 lbs/ac. of sulfur per DM ton). Boron is certainly recommended on established stands. Catching up on soil fertility after establishing alfalfa is most generally discouraged since fertility greatly impacts germination rates and early establishment, thus meeting optimum maintenance levels of soil test P, K, and pH are advised before planting.

Remember, a fertility plan should include maintenance soil test levels for alfalfa, and crop removal, with elemental debits and credits per se. In addition, considering soil texture and nutrient mobility in the soil, in most silt loam soils, P, K, and calcium carbonate move relatively slow through the soil profile, while elements like boron and sulfur move relatively quickly in comparison, thus the need for multiple applications to fill nutrient requirements.

Remove or minimize pests and disease – Whether it’s alfalfa weevil, summer annual weeds, or common leaf spot, pests and disease are usually yield and quality robbers, many impacting greatly in short duration. Most insects and weeds have an economic threshold that warrants a pesticide application, but keep in mind when alfalfa hay and haylage is worth more, these thresholds are lower, and thus an application may be justified at a lower pest population.

In addition to insect and weed management, we certainly can’t ignore the preventative / curative benefits of newly-labeled fungicides now being used on alfalfa for foliar disease. Most growers have a favorable view of these products so far on alfalfa for overall plant health benefits, yield increase, and leaf retention, though university and private research varies on positive returns.

Cutting management – Certainly end-use or intended market impact when to harvest, but how does where we cut on the yield and quality “curve” impact pushing overall yield and quality?

Alfalfa growers have always been faced with an “inverse” relationship between yield and quality at every cutting: Cut for higher forage quality and yield suffers; cut for higher yields and forage quality suffers. However, W-L’s HQ™ alfalfas can truly help alfalfa growers attack this age-old “negative” relationship between cutting schedules and forage quality. HQ™ Alfalfas allow the grower to delay alfalfa harvest to a later maturity while still “holding” high quality, and also capturing higher hay yields in the process.

The current group of HQ™ alfalfas allow growers to delay harvest with minimal forage quality declines. The introduction of HarvXtra™ alfalfa is even more exciting in what the technology will bring in the coming years. HarvXtra™ alfalfa will offer significantly greater benefits to managing the yield and quality relationship. 

Seed selection – Your alfalfa seed choice is a multi-year investment. Newer W-L genetics have a significant economic advantage over cheaper public or common varieties in yield potential, persistence, disease resistance, and forage quality. Genuity® Roundup Ready® Alfalfa continues to impress growers coast to coast with its great weed control flexibility and ease, and what many growers perceive in greater yields, quality and persistence. Working closely with a W-L distributor, dealer, or account manager will best fit the right W-L variety for your cutting management and production goals, and truly push the bar to drive alfalfa performance in 2015 and beyond.

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