Western alfalfa growers can quickly assess the quality of standing alfalfa if they simply get on the stick.

Steve Orloff, a University of California farm advisor, and Dan Putnam, University of California-Davis extension forage specialist, have developed the University of California Intermountain Alfalfa Quality Prediction Stick to help growers make cutting decisions. The stick uses plant height and the growth stage of the most mature stems to estimate the crop's acid detergent fiber (ADF) level.

Information on the stick is based on a forage quality prediction method developed in Wisconsin, called Predictive Equations for Alfalfa Quality (PEAQ), and on data from 356 alfalfa samples gathered in California and Idaho.

The results from the two states were similar, so the information was combined and a single quality prediction equation was developed specifically for growers in the short-season areas of the West.

These easy-to-follow steps are printed on each stick:

Step 1: Select an average 2-sq-ft area to sample.

Step 2: Determine the growth stage (vegetative, bud or bloom) of the most mature stem.

Step 3: Find the single tallest stem. Measure from the soil surface to the stem tip using the correct side of the stick (vegetative, bud or bloom). Read the scale to predict ADF.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 in at least five representative areas and average the results.

If the quality prediction stick indicates the alfalfa is already below dairy quality, a grower may decide to postpone harvest to maximize yield and target another market.

The prediction stick isn't intended to replace standard lab analysis, so the results shouldn't be used to formulate rations or as a basis for marketing decisions, caution the researchers.

"The prediction stick estimates the forage quality of a healthy standing crop prior to harvest," says Orloff. "It can't account for quality losses that may occur while the crop is curing or during harvest and storage."

Prediction sticks are available for $10 each for orders of less than 10; $7 each for orders of 10 or more. Add $3 per order for shipping and handling. Contact Steve Orloff, 1655 S. Main St., Yreka, CA 96097. Phone: 530-842-2711.