This spring’s extremely warm weather has southern Wisconsin alfalfa growers chomping at the bit to start first crop, reports Dan Undersander, forage specialist for University of Wisconsin (UW) Extension. He notes that alfalfa is already 24” tall in areas where it typically would be only 8-10”.

“Some people were planning to start cutting at the end of last week,” reports Undersander. “It’s the first time ever that we’ve had an April alfalfa cutting here in the state.”

Early crop development may mean growers will have to choose between harvesting alfalfa and planting corn. Livestock producers, Undersander says, will want to keep in mind that relative forage quality (RFQ) in alfalfa decreases four to five points every day harvest is delayed. Figuring the value of each point of RFQ at $1.20 and an average yield of 1.5-2 tons/acre, alfalfa harvest delays could cost $9-12/acre/day.

The yield loss in delaying corn harvest is around ½ bu/acre/day. At a corn price of $6-7/bu, that would be a loss of $3-3.50/acre/day.

“And this year, a lot of nutritionists are stressing the importance of producing quality forage in order to reduce the need for high-priced purchased corn,” says Undersander.

PEAQ (Predictive Equations For Alfalfa Quality) sticks can help growers make cutting decisions based on alfalfa height and stage of maturity. The sticks are available from the Midwest Forage Association.

If you don’t want to buy a PEAQ Stick (cost is typically $10-15 plus shipping and handling), use a simple yardstick with instructions found in Alfalfa Germination & Growth, a UW Extension publication.

Alfalfa weevil activity from Madison south could also influence growers’ decisions on when to begin first cutting. “If the stand comes on fast enough, you can cut early to get ahead of the weevils,” says Undersander. “In areas to the north, where cooler weather has had the stands coming on a little slower, you might need to spray.

“It’s just such an unusual year,” he adds, “the best advice I can give people is to watch developments in their stands very closely.”