With current high hay prices, producers should fight to get 6-7 tons/acre this year rather than the average alfalfa yield of 4-4.5 tons/acre, according to a University of Wisconsin Extension forage specialist.
A 50% yield increase could be a worthwhile challenge that only requires a little more effort and money, said Dan Undersander at a University of Minnesota Extension forages workshop in mid-March.
“The most economic yield for each of you is the highest yield you can get,” he added. “The marginal cost of a little better variety or a little more fertilizer is nothing compared to the cost of your land and taxes. Even your machinery costs the same whether you get a high yield or a low yield.”
Increasing yields doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. Growers can utilize better planting techniques and regularly keep track of soil fertility.
Seed alfalfa between a quarter to a half-inch deep, or, if grass is seeded with it, to no more than 1” deep. About five to 10 seeds per square foot should be visible on the surface after seeding, he said. “If you don’t see any on the surface, the rest of your seed went too deep.”
Then pack the soil tightly for good seed-to-soil contact. If a footprint doesn’t sink into seeded ground more than a quarter of an inch, the soil is packed enough.
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If seeded correctly, only about 12 lbs of seed an acre is required to grow a good crop. Producers should strive for at least 55 stems/square foot to get at least 6 tons/acre of yield, Undersander said. Stem density, not plant density, is a good indicator of yield potential.
Know your soil’s fertility levels, he suggested. Undersander said he sees far too many fields with pH levels below 6.5; they should be around 6.8 for alfalfa. Because hay removes so many nutrients from the soil – about 14 lbs of phosphate, 55 lbs of potash, and 5 pounds of sulfur per acre – farmers should periodically tissue test stands at harvest.
Better management can lower the seeding rate needed to get a good crop. That could encourage producers to turn their stands over more often. Alfalfa yields decline about 13% after two full-production years, he says.
“Everyone thinks we need to keep these alfalfa stands for four to five years because the seed costs so much. But how many of you would plant a corn variety that yielded 20% less than you thought you could get?” Undersander questioned.
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