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5 Secrets of an alfalfa artist

Gene Johnston 11/06/2013 @ 11:27am On the scene at the 2012 Cattle Convention, Nashville

Tom Kestell says growing alfalfa is as much art as it is science. On that basis, he’s a world-class alfalfa artist. The Waldo, Wisconsin, dairy producer operates two farms, Ever-Green-View and Rainbow’s End Dairy, with his son, Chris. They won the dairy hay division of the World Forage Analysis Superbowl last year. 

The contest is primarily about hay quality, and their winning entry had a relative feed value (RFV) of 250 and a crude protein over 25%. The Kestells are also champions at quantity, routinely expecting and getting 8 tons of alfalfa per acre, and pushing it over 10 tons when the weather cooperates.

Following are five of Kestell’s artistic tips for growing high-yielding alfalfa.

1. Start with a good seedbed to get a good stand 

“Alfalfa seed is small, and you want to plant it no more than ¼ inch deep,” he says. “We crush the ground with a cultipack, then we seed 18 to 20 pounds an acre. We cultipack again to firm it up.” 

They’ve used several types of drill seeders, which can all be successful if the ¼-inch standard is achieved. One old rule says the soil for seeding alfalfa needs to be firm enough to bounce a basketball off of. Kestell says the soil needs to be firm enough that when he walks on it, he doesn’t leave tracks.

2. Have balanced fertility 

“We soil-test for everything, and we want nothing out of whack,” says Kestell. “Not too high, not too low, and keep the pH in line.” Most of the alfalfa fields get liquid cow manure before the seeding year, and the Kestells sometimes apply a foliar fertilizer in the summer if leaf tests call for it. “Sometimes we combine that with a pesticide application,” he says.

3. Have a short cutting interval and harvest quickly

Depending on weather, the Kestells cut alfalfa every 28 to 33 days, usually going longer for the final cutting in the fall. 

   They take five cuttings per year in a zone where many producers only get three, and they harvest quickly. 

“For our alfalfa that will be harvested as haylage, we merge (combine swaths) at 60% moisture or more to manage losses. Then we let it dry to the lower 50% level to begin harvest,” says Kestell. 

Alfalfa to be harvested as baleage in plastic wrap is V-raked also at 60% moisture, and then it is allowed to dry to 50%. He says the switch from dry hay to baleage has shortened the harvest window by a full day. 

“In the last 10 years, almost 100% of our alfalfa has been harvested without weather damage,” he notes. “When we want to make dry hay, we wait for the right opportunity where both dry ground conditions and good drying weather will prevail for several days.”

4. Limit wheel traffic

“We don’t let our heavier equipment on a field any time it’s a little wet or in the fall,” says Kestell. “The plants don’t bounce back very well if we drive on them with the heavy rigs at those times.”

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