When alfalfa is cut is one of the most important factors under a grower’s control, impacting yield and quality – and the grower’s bottom line, says Steve Orloff, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) farm advisor for Siskiyou County.

But the standard 28-day cutting schedule often won’t produce optimum returns, suggests an alfalfa harvest schedule study that Orloff and UC Davis Extension forage specialist Dan Putnam conducted. Keeping track of the hay market – and cutting for yield when hay prices are high and quality when prices are low – might.

Growers face a yield-vs.-quality trade-off that’s largely unavoidable, according to Orloff and Putnam. If they cut frequently for quality, yield suffers; cutting later increases yield but decreases quality.

“The question is, which is more profitable? Is it more profitable to aim for high quality or maximum yield?” Orloff asks.

The researchers decided to assess the profitability of varying cutting schedules in California’s Central Valley and Intermountain regions. They used average annual hay prices for 10 years from USDA Market News data for the different alfalfa quality grades. Then they combined that data with results from three-year field studies of early, medium and late cutting schedules.

Gross returns per acre for each of those 10 years were calculated by multiplying the yield associated with each of the cutting schedules times the price of the grade of hay harvested in the trial, Orloff says.

Putnam compared the Central Valley’s standard 28-day-interval (seven-cutting-per-year) harvest schedule with a 24- to 26-day (eight-cut) system and a 32- to 33-day (six-cut) schedule.

Qualitywise, supreme hay (less than 27% ADF) dropped from nearly 59% to 29% to 16% from eight- to seven- to six-cut systems over the trial’s three years.

“With the less-frequent cutting schedules, we are getting less supreme- and premium-quality hay. But look at how high our yield is,” Orloff says.

Total seasonal yield average was 11.45 tons/acre for six-cut; 9.92 for seven-cut and 9.32 for eight-cut schedules. The six-cut system averaged almost $150/acre more in gross returns than did the standard seven-cut schedule.

“The reason is that the yield difference is so much greater with that six-cut schedule. In every one of those 10 years, the six-cut schedule was more profitable than the seven-cut,” Orloff says.

The eight-cut schedule was less profitable than the seven-cut in high-hay-price years and more profitable in the low-price years, averaging only $3/acre higher than the standard seven-cut system overall, he says.

In the Intermountain’s cooler weather and shorter growing season, three- and four-cutting systems were studied, with two variations on the three-cut schedule. One evaluated equal time intervals between the second and third cuttings; the other delayed second cut by a week to 10 days to maximize production at that time of year. Orloff conducted the
trials at Tulelake and Macdoel.

“With the four-cut schedule, we ended up having all supreme-quality hay but … the lowest yield,” Orloff says. The delayed-second-cutting, three-cut system showed the highest yield and both three-cut schedules produced a mix of supreme, premium and good hay.

The most profitable? The three-cut system with delayed second cutting showed the highest returns each year. Delaying second cutting improved the third cutting’s quality and increased the price for that cutting without losing much yield, he adds.

It depended on the year which one of the other two cutting schedules – either the four-cut or the three-cut standard with equal intervals between each cutting – was most profitable.

“In a high-price year, the three-cut schedule was more profitable; in a low-price year, the four-cut schedule was more profitable.” That’s because there is a greater price difference between high- and low-quality alfalfa in low-price years than in high-price years, he says.

Choosing which cutting schedule to use isn’t a straightforward decision, Orloff says. “Key factors are total seasonal yield, forage quality and alfalfa price. And not just the price, but primarily the price spread between the different hay quality categories.”

Consider the marketability of the hay in question, he says. If your hay is coarse and stemmy in a low-price year, it may be difficult to sell. “Also keep in mind the effect on stand persistence of cutting schedules. Longer cutting schedules provide alfalfa more time to replenish root reserves and improve overall vigor and stand persistence.”

The forage experts’ study suggests that growers often aren’t paid for frequent cuttings.

“You’re not compensated enough for that supreme-quality hay and, as a penalty, you are paying in yield. If a grower can develop a strong market for mature, high-fiber hay, then longer cutting schedules are almost definitely more profitable than shorter cutting schedules,” Orloff says.

In reality, growers need to pay attention to market conditions and be flexible enough to adjust cutting schedules to get the most from conditions, Orloff suggests.

“The best overall approach, I feel, is a mixed strategy. In the Intermountain area, go ahead and lengthen out the interval between cuttings in midsummer … go for yield and give that alfalfa field a chance to replenish its root reserves.” Market the hay to other channels, such as the horse or beef market, he suggests.

“In the Central Valley, take a cutting or two in the middle of summer when it’s hard to make dairy-quality hay anyway, lengthen that cutting interval, go for maximum yield and give the plants a rest.”