Don’t give up on alfalfa because it suffered winterkill. Alfalfa has too much to offer, say Paul Peterson and Dan Undersander, extension forage specialists for Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively. Think how to best use the crop and improve its chances for success.
There’s too much of a high-quality forage burden on alfalfa; growers expect it to carry a full load even in situations where persistence challenges are likely. Growers still have time to seed new, thick forage stands until mid-May in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and until around June 1 in the northern parts of the states.
Here are ways you can give alfalfa a better chance to do well on your farm:
• Site selection – Seed alfalfa and alfalfa-dominant mixtures only in well-drained fields with adequate pH and fertility before seeding.
• Variety selection – Experiment with different varieties on your farm. Use variety trial results to help choose which varieties to try. Pay special attention to winter-survival-index (WSI) and fall-dormancy ratings – lower numbers mean better persistence potential. Seed cost is trivial in comparison to the other fixed costs of forage conservation, the specialists say.
• Harvest timing – There is growing evidence that a key to persistence is allowing at least one crop per year to become well-flowered. At Fargo, ND, Dwain Meyer has completed three consecutive years of four cuttings per year. That includes a fall cut with little if any winter injury to two alfalfa varieties, including one with a WSI of 3. A consistent strategy the North Dakota State University forage management specialist uses is to delay that fourth cutting until either 50% bloom or when 2-3” of regrowth has emerged from the crowns.
• Consider potential benefits of grazing the forage instead – The costs of harvesting, storing and feeding forages, plus hauling manure, continue to climb. On top of that, the yield and quality of what livestock get begin to deteriorate as soon as cutting starts. With grazing, livestock handle harvest and manure hauling. They also choose first the most nutritious parts (the leaves), which are often lost in machine harvesting. By grazing fall alfalfa rather than being fed a harvested crop, animals will tend to leave a lot of stem and consume the high-quality leaves and stem tips. This provides a fall “harvest” at its best, leaving residue to provide cover and snow catch.
• Seed alfalfa in mixtures – It’s not natural for a perennial species to be grown in a monoculture, or as a single crop. Yet we seed alfalfa monocultures in rolling fields with low wet spots, northwest slopes and hilltops where snow won’t stick, and south-facing slopes where alfalfa gets fooled into breaking dormancy too soon. Seeding legume-grass mixtures in these fields would be less risky and often provide higher-quality forage.
Other forage species that can complement alfalfa include:
- Winter-hardy grasses like reed canarygrass and smooth bromegrass. Both are sod-formers, too, which will reduce traffic damage and heaving potential.
- Rapid-recovery bunch grasses like orchardgrass and tall fescue, though they may lack some cold tolerance.
- High-quality, short-term, but easily overseeded grasses like perennial ryegrass and festuloliums.
- Legumes such as more-persistent varieties of red clover, which can better handle low spots and improve haylage protein quality (www.uwex.edu/ces/crops/uwforage/RedCloverCows.html). And despite its establishment challenges, two decades of Minnesota and Wisconsin research have documented that Kura clover is a worthy candidate for haylage and pasture mixtures because of its tremendous winterhardiness and versatility, the specialists say.