Excellent alfalfa stands can be established as part of a “systems approach” with triticale grown and harvested as a winter forage in the Northeast. The combo produces 8-15 tons/acre of silage, says Tom Kilcer, a Kinderhook, NY, agronomist and former Cornell University Extension agent.

But the legume’s establishment success ties to the use of a conventional press-wheel drill and the fact that the previous crop – triticale – provides it with a virtually weed-free environment.

Kilcer, now an independent crop advisor, planted 18 lbs/acre of alfalfa using a 1960s press-wheel grain drill on June 10, 2012. Seed was run through a small-seeded legume box on the drill. “It’s not a no-till drill by any means, but it does a very good job using it as a no-till drill,” he says.

“We cut a little groove into the stubble, dropped in alfalfa seed and covered it up. I am getting better stands than when I plow and disk and plant – with fewer weeds.”

Triticale, planted the previous September and harvested in May, left the soil in good shape. The allelopathy compounds that exude from the grain crop suppress weeds but apparently have no affect on alfalfa, he says.

Even so, he applied a low rate of glyphosate before planting to keep any emerged weeds or triticale volunteers in check. Two light rains after planting provided the only above-ground moisture, and one cutting of alfalfa was taken off in early August.

“The first time I did it, it worked so well it scared me,” Kilcer says. “An agronomist looked at it at the end of the year and said, ‘That looks like a two-year-old stand, and it went through the 2012 drought.’ ” Because the stand started in good shape, it also withstood potato leafhoppers, a big problem in the New York area, he adds.

April-seeded alfalfa normally yields 2-2¼ dry matter tons per acre – at least ¼-½ ton/acre more than a later-seeded crop, he says.

But compared to conventionally planted alfalfa seeded earlier in the season, the June-planted stand was thicker and more uniform. “It hardly had any weeds in it, and we got almost as much off of it because we didn’t have that very weak first cutting.”

Alfalfa, Kilcer says, is another tool in developing a very diverse cropping system producing a double crop of quality silage. He’s also experimenting with forage sorghums grown after triticale.

“With the change in the weather patterns, we’re going to have to adjust for more erratic weather. So, by having a diversified cropping system, we spread the risk out. You can still do April seedings if you want. But if you seed alfalfa around the beginning of June into triticale stubble, it works very well. It shifts your workload and risk to a different time of year.”

Last June, Kilcer planted alfalfa with the same method and seeding rate, with a chisel-plow test across the plots in two strips. Tillage didn’t improve the seeding.

“It’s a slick time (to be planting alfalfa). You’re not out early in the spring trying to drill it in the mud. Only the soil where the alfalfa was planted was disturbed, so few new weed seeds were brought up. The allelopathy from the winter grain kept most common weeds – lambsquarters, pigweeds, mustard – from getting started.”

Little or no weed competition and warm soils helped the late-planted crop germinate within a week.

The advantage of the press-wheel drill is that it follows the contours of the soil better than would a cultipacker seeder or a roller, he says.

“The many small dips and bumps in the field keep the roller from fully contacting the soil, and a significant percentage of seed is lying on the surface.

“A press-wheel drill follows up and down the bumps, exactly where the coulter drops the seed, and is able to assure excellent seed-soil contact for all the seeds.”

Alfalfa’s deep roots can capitalize on the deep tillage that breaks up hardpan before planting triticale, he adds.

For more on the agronomist’s research, visit www.advancedagsys.com.