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Seeding year harvest management for alfalfa

For more than 60 years, alfalfa yields, forage quality and persistence have increased thanks to improved genetics, disease and insect control and more intensive nutrient and harvest management.

Despite substantial work in improving alfalfa production, these technologies and research findings focus on the first through third production years. Research on seeding year yield improvements is limited.

However, increasing seeding year yields is a potential area for improvement that could ultimately help producers maximize revenue.

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Research: Seeding year harvest

To expand knowledge on seeding year management, we conducted research that sought to evaluate how seeding year harvest regimes affected on forage yield, quality and persistence of new, moderate to semi-dormant alfalfa varieties.

To do this, we implemented three seeding year cutting management strategies to six alfalfa varieties at three Minnesota locations.

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Study results

Yield

Averaged across the three locations, yield didn’t differ across the six alfalfa varieties (Figure 1).

Alfalfa yields for both two-cut systems for all six alfalfa varieties ranged from 0.9 to 4.0 tons per acre, whereas yields from the three-cut system ranged from 1.5 to 5 tons per acre. Alfalfa varieties had similar yields for both of the two-cut systems. Not surprisingly, the three-cut system outyielded both the two-cut systems by nearly 1 ton per acre.

A cutting system with a fall-cut greatly improved the total season year yields. However, the fall harvest reduced first-cut yields in the year following seeding by 3 percent (1.28 tons per acre) compared to the two-cut systems (1.38 tons per acre).

A figure depicting the effect of alfalfa varieties and cutting management on alfalfa yield. he three-cut system outyielded both the two-cut systems by nearly 1 ton per acre.
Fig. 1: Seeding-year alfalfa yield as influenced by alfalfa varieties and cutting management. Error bars indicate ±1 standard error, the estimated deviation from the mean

Quality

Although forage quality was also similar across alfalfa varieties, cutting treatments influenced neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFD), as shown in Figure 2. Crude protein was similar across both alfalfa varieties and cutting treatments, ranging from 22 to 24 percent.

Alfalfa varieties in the improved quality two-cut regimen, with cutting 90 days after planting, had increased NDFD values compared to the standard two-cut and three-cut systems.

The most dormant alfalfa variety in the study, CW FD2, had the highest NDFD. This isn’t surprising, because maturation would’ve been slower, increasing the quality. The CW FD2 variety would’ve most likely been in the vegetative to bud stage, while the other alfalfa varieties would’ve most likely been in the bud to early flower stage.

Figure depicting the effect of alfalfa varieties and cutting management on neutral detergent fiber digestibility. Alfalfa varieties in the improved quality two-cut regimen, with cutting 90 days after planting, had increased NDFD values compared to the standard two-cut and three-cut systems.
Fig. 2: Seeding year alfalfa NDFd as influenced by alfalfa varieties and cutting management. Error bars indicate ±1 standard error, which is the estimated deviation from the mean.

M. Scott Wells, Extension agronomist; Joshua Larson, researcher and Craig Sheaffer, agronomist, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Reviewed in 2018

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