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Topics : Species and Forage Variety Trials : Species Fact Sheets : Alfalfa

Species: Alfalfa

Additional alfalfa information via the Forage Information System (FIS) or Alfalfa Council

Alfalfa Hay Harvest Management

Seeding Year - When alfalfa is spring seeded, the first cutting can be made 60 days after emergence if one cutting during the seeding year is allowed to reach early bloom before it is harvested. Normally up to two to three harvests may be made in the year of a spring seeding, depending on the length of the growing season.

Established Stands - Cutting management is an important tool in achieving high quality, high yields, and stand persistence. It also can be effective in reducing the impact of weed, insect, and disease pests. Harvest schedules depend somewhat on the quality goals of the producer. Progressive dairy farmers have recognized the economic importance of producing high-quality forage and often cut early in order to obtain greater than 20% crude protein, less than 30% acid detergent fiber, and less than 40% neutral detergent fiber. Such high-quality forage has the potential to increase forage dry matter intake and milk production while decreasing the requirement for grain. For additional information, refer to Forage Quality in Perspective, and Forage Quality Testing: Why? How? and Where?

For high-quality alfalfa, make the first cutting at mid- to full bud stage, so long as:

1. Better adapted varieties with multiple pest resistance are used.

2. Adequate levels of lime, phosphorus, and potassium are maintained.

3. Insect pests are monitored and controlled.

Cutting pre- or early bud alfalfa is not recommended because there is a higher risk of losing the stand. Also, fiber levels may be undesirably low when cut extremely early. If an alfalfa stand has been weakened by winter stress, make the first cutting at the early- to midbloom stage.

Generally, summer cuttings are permitted to reach early bloom (approximately 35 days between cuttings). In Pennsylvania, the average cutting intervals between first and second cuts and second and third cuts, for producers who make four or more cuts per year, is 37 and 33 days, respectively.

In the past, it has been recommended that producers avoid cutting alfalfa during the critical 6-week period prior to the average hard frost date (generally between early September and mid-October). This should still be considered if the stand is weak due to such factors as low soil fertility, disease, or extreme climatic conditions (such as water-saturated soils). However, it has more recently been recognized that alfalfa can be cut even during this critical period as long as:

1. Better adapted varieties with multiple pest resistant are used.

2. Adequate levels of lime, phosphorus, and potassium are maintained.

3. There are at least 45 days of regrowth prior to cutting.

If harvests are delayed until mid-October, leave a 4- to 6-inch stubble to protect the crown and to catch snow for added insulation over winter.

Harvest schedules for alfalfa-grass mixtures should be based on the growth stage of the alfalfa as it relates to the species of grass used in the mix. Because orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, reed canarygrass, and tall fescue can tolerate more frequent cuttings without jeopardizing the grass stand, they are more compatible with frequently cut alfalfa. Stands of timothy or smooth bromegrass mixed with alfalfa should not be cut until the grass is in the early head-emergence stage, and cannot tolerate frequently cut alfalfa; therefore, they are more compatible with less intensely managed alfalfa (three cuts or less per year).

Additional and more detailed information on alfalfa harvest management is available.