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Fall alfalfa harvest management
By Steve Bartels
Ohio Farm News

One of the better alfalfa producers in the area called the first week in November to talk about a late harvest of his crop. He had taken the last cutting on Sept. 8, right on schedule, and now had alfalfa that was blooming.

Alfalfa, which is at this stage, may be harvested after the plants have gone dormant. The plants would not likely survive if they were to start to grow after harvest and use the plant food reserve stored in the root.

The weather forecast was not promising. At this time of year, unless you are cutting it as silage or putting it in a bag, baleage, it is very difficult to get it dry enough to bale. When we talked the five-day forecast was for rain and colder temperatures.

We talked about what the first cutting would be like next spring if he didn’t cut it this fall. He will have a lot of brown stems in the first cutting but it shouldn’t affect his stand. The new buds will break and come up through all the old stuff. The protein level of his hay will not be hurt very much. There will be a lot of dead plant material in it so it will not have a nice green color.

Fields that have a great deal of silt loam or clay loam soils are prone to heaving in the spring. The temperature fluctuations above and below freezing can raise the alfalfa plant out of the soil. This problem is more likely to occur if the crown of the plant is not protected by a vegetative or other cover. Research over many years has shown that late harvest of the plant after it has gone dormant dramatically increases the number of plants that are killed by heaving. The harvest removes the protection the plant would have had in the spring. Before you decide to harvest, consider the risk of losing the stand next year as compared to the need for the extra forage now.

If you are considering a dormant harvest, cut the hay at four inches so it has some protection. The stubble would help in catching any snow which would act as insulation. It would be a good idea to mulch with straw manure, light on manure, heavy on straw. This will help with heaving. This practice is not recommended for all fields.

The soil should have a high level of fertility, and be well drained. The field should be well established, definitely not a first year field. The best candidate would be a field that still has a decent stand, but has been in production for say, five years, and so if it died, it would not be as devastating of a loss as in a young productive field.

Published in the November 16, 2005 issue of Farm World.