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Need more alfalfa tonnage? Cut later

Jeff Caldwell 06/11/2013 @ 8:05am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

The alfalfa crop in much of the country got smoked by the drought last summer. Now, tight supplies and resulting high prices continue to make life tough for those relying on the forage for feed.

But there are some simple adjustments to make to your alfalfa management, at least at the beginning of this summer, to put more emphasis on output in the first cutting, one expert says.

"The typical recommendation is to harvest at early or 1/10 bloom because that often gives the best balance between yield and quality," says University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist Bruce Anderson. "This year, though, yield might be way more important than quality. If you need extra tonnage, wait until your alfalfa is at the full-bloom stage of growth before taking the first cut."

The optimal time to do so, Anderson says, is about 10 days after the first blooms appear on alfalfa plants. Doing so may not net the full quality -- something that may be a foregone loss at this point in areas where conditions remain dry, like central and western Nebraska -- but it "can add about 1/2 ton to your first cut yield," he says.

"If moisture is short, maximizing tonnage at first harvest is especially important because moisture is used more efficiently to produce yield during first growth than at any other time," he adds.

Even if you have had ample moisture recharge since last year's drought, you can still benefit from this strategy beyond the first cutting.

"If your alfalfa receives enough moisture to support regrowth through the year, harvesting three cuts at full bloom should give you about 10% more total yield than taking four cuts at first bloom," Anderson says.

One caveat in this strategy is the protein content of alfalfa harvested at full maturity rather than when blooms first appear. It will have slightly less protein, so if you plan on feeding it to yearlings or heifers, think about sticking to a plan that nets you the highest-quality forage.

"Mature alfalfa hay usually contains less protein than younger hay but still should be plenty adequate for wintering beef cows," Anderson says.

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