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Recovery & Reseed Options for Damaged Alfalfa

This spring is like bad magic … Abracadabra!  Presto!  Our alfalfa disappeared. The May 2-3 snow event really did a trick on alfalfa fields across the Midwest.

The past year has been a wild ride for alfalfa.  The 2012 drought created concerns for new alfalfa establishments.  During the heart of winter, some areas had inadequate snow to insulate and protect alfalfa from winter injury.  Cooler spring temperatures delayed when alfalfa plants would normally emerge from dormancy.  Additionally, at the time dormancy was breaking, we were hit with a late season snow event.

The alfalfa damage we’re seeing now is a combination of many events:

1.     Smothered – This is the most probable cause of alfalfa injury in the Upper Midwest.  It results from a combination of heavy, wet snow and ice packed tightly against crown prohibiting proper respiration.

2.     Reduced carbohydrates in crown – Last year’s drought reduced plant metabolism.  Drought also reduced the plant’s ability to capture nutrients needed to build essential carbohydrates for such a long winter.  The crown is like a gas tank for nutrients, and the long winter had alfalfa running on empty.

3.     Late fall cutting – With an alfalfa shortage from the 2012 drought, many livestock producers understandably harvested as much as possible.  This aggressive cutting regime took energy from the storage reserve in the crown, and the alfalfa plant struggled to replenish this reserve because of limited water.  

4.     Reduced insulating barrier – Typically, snow helps insulate the soil and stabilize soil temperatures.  In the absence of early season snow, alfalfa fields that were cut late didn’t have adequate insulation to protect against winter damage.  On the contrary, fields that were not harvested late had some growth that acted as buffer between the snow, ice and crown.

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