This spring will be the fourth that Rick Riessen has established alfalfa stands at about double the 12- to 18-lb/acre seeding rate recommended by university forage specialists.

“I’ve seeded alfalfa at 30-35 lbs/acre,” says the Battle Creek, IA, grower and cow-calf producer. “When I seed at a heavier population, I get finer stems, it dries down faster and the bales are heavier.”

The finer stems translate to a high-quality product, adds Larry Krapfl, Latham Hi-Tech Seeds regional sales manager for western Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. The relative feed value of Riessen’s hay, much of which goes to a local dairy, is ranging from 200 to 210.

Yields are higher, too, and for longer than just the establishment year that university research has indicated should be the norm.

Riessen, who has 150 acres of alfalfa, kept track of the numbers. One 13-acre field, spring-planted to a Roundup Ready variety in 2012, yielded 9.4 tons/acre last year despite dry conditions, he says. He took four hay cuttings.

The field netted $825/acre, with large round bales selling for a modest $150/ton. Its total revenue was $1,410/acre. The seed costs were paid for within the seeding year, he says.

“That’s a good return on alfalfa with a $270/acre (seed cost) investment,” Krapfl adds.

Riessen planted conventional alfalfa at the higher seeding rate as well and thinks those stands will last six to seven years – longer than the current five-year recommendation.

He used to plant alfalfa at 15 lbs/acre, and his yield averaged 4 tons/acre on four cuttings. But he and Krapfl realized that, just as corn genetics have allowed for higher planting rates and higher returns, alfalfa genetics have also improved. So Riessen started seeding heavier populations as he rotated fields.

Aggressive management is needed, he warns. New seedings are usually first cut 60 days after planting; later cuttings are taken 21 to 28 days apart. The crop is cut to a ½” height. “Even at ½”, regrowth is not inhibited,” Krapfl observes.

“You have to vigorously fertilize, but not before first cutting,” Riessen adds. “I put on 300 lbs of phosphorus and potassium (150 lbs each) and spray for bugs. That’s a must or I can’t mow at 21 days.”

No herbicide is applied to the Roundup Ready alfalfa fields, which seem to regrow faster and add tonnage compared to his conventional alfalfa, he says.

Krapfl says a number of his customers are seeding at heavier populations, although more in the 28-lb/acre range.

In Wisconsin as well, growers are experimenting with seeding rates. A replicated on-farm trial near Lancaster last year showed a yield increase of ¾ ton/acre, on a dry matter basis, from Roundup Ready alfalfa seed planted at 32 lbs/acre compared to the same variety planted at 16 lbs/acre. The trial was requested by farmers and conducted by Latham, headquartered in Alexander, IA.

The heavier-seeded alfalfa produced, on three cuttings, 3.87 to 4.23 dry matter tons per acre while that seeded at 16 lbs/acre yielded 3.22 to 3.37 tons/acre.

The ¾-ton yield increase, if alfalfa were selling for $300/ton, would bring an extra value of $232/acre, figures Corey Catt, Latham forage products manager.

“Plants equal tonnage,” says Catt, cautiously adding that the trial was only a one-year, one-location test in which Mother Nature cooperated. “More years (of research) are needed to fully understand the full effect of higher rates.”

The additional cost for the higher rate of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed, at $429/50-lb bag, totaled $137.20/acre. Catt compared that to the cost of additional conventional seed, at $275/50-lb bag, which would average $88/acre.

The per-acre additional income for the heavier-seeded stands, after seed costs were taken out, averaged $94.84 for Roundup Ready. He estimated the added income for conventional seed at $144.04/acre.

Quality tests on the second and third cuttings of the trial’s seeding-year alfalfa showed a slight quality decrease in the high-rate seeding, he adds.

University of Wisconsin trials on increased alfalfa seeding rates are being implemented this spring, says UW Extension forage specialist Dan Undersander. “With $200-300/ton hay, that could be worthwhile where it never was in the past,” he says.