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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

Managing Weeds in Legumes

Managing weeds in forages requires a different approach than weed management in row crops. Over 95% of the weed control in a healthy forage crop comes from the competition provided by the forage. However, to maintain a relatively weed-free forage, proper fertilization, cutting management, insect control, the use of disease-resistant varieties, and selective herbicide use are necessary to keep the forage stand competitive.

If weeds become a problem, they can compete or interfere for light, nutrients, water, and space, directly influencing yield and standability. Common chickweed infestations in alfalfa have been reported to reduce forage stand by more than 30%. Common chickweed emerges in the fall and winter and early in spring develops a thick lush mat that can compete with the first forage cutting. Once the chickweed dies in early summer, summer annual weeds such as foxtails, lambsquarters, and pigweed or perennial weeds such as dandelion can replace the dead or dying winter annual weeds and continue to reduce forage yield and quality.

Unlike most grain or fiber crops from which weeds are separated at harvest, weeds are often harvested along with the forage crop, potentially reducing quality. Reductions in quality are often in the form of lower protein content and feed digestibility. Although weeds do have some feed value, this value differs among species. Dandelions come close to equaling alfalfa in protein and total digestible nutrients (TDN). Control of dandelion may not necessarily improve the quality of hay, but it may be of some value in reducing the time necessary to dry the hay, since dandelion dries more slowly than alfalfa. Increased drying time may mean greater harvest losses due to untimely rainfall.

Grassy weed quality can be similar to that of the forage. In general, weedy grasses have about 75% of the quality of alfalfa. However, controlling quackgrass in alfalfa can increase forage protein levels 4% to 7%. Weeds with woody stems or flower stalks, such as yellow rocket, white cockle, rough fleabane, curly dock, and broadleaved dock, have lower protein levels (about 50% of the quality of alfalfa), so controlling them is even more important.

When weeds are present or persist in spite of good management, herbicides can help improve yield and quality. Weed control at establishment or in the seedling year is most critical for maintaining a healthy forage stand. When weeds are controlled the seedling year, the forage crop seldom requires additional herbicide treatments for at least the first two years of the stand.

Weed management in forages can be divided into two phases: control in the establishment or seedling year and control in an established stand.

Control before and during establishment

Managing weeds in forages begins long before crop establishment. Certain types of weeds are potentially serious problems for forages, so it is important to eliminate them in advance. In particular, perennial broadleafs and grasses such as dandelion, curly dock, Canada thistle, and quackgrass are much easier to manage prior to planting a forage crop. In addition, biennial weeds including musk thistle and burdock should be eliminated before establishing forage. If these weeds are not removed before the seeding is made, they commonly persist throughout the life of the forage. The cost of controlling weeds before or at the time of seeding should be considered an investment that will be returned for the life of the stand.

Below are some general rules for managing weeds at establishment or in the seedling year:

1. Weeds that emerge with the crop are generally more destructive.

2. Maintain the forage relatively weed-free for the first 60 days.

3. Weeds that emerge beyond 60 days will not influence that year's forage yield.

4. Later-emerging weeds may still influence forage quality.

5. Winter annual weed competition in early spring is most damaging to forages.

6. Broadleaved or dicotyledonous weeds are generally more competitive against legumes than grassy weeds.

Herbicides are needed most often during establishment, and several options exist for managing weeds in pure legume seedings. In no-till seedings, adequately controlling the existing vegetation is very important, especially perennials. Weed control is also very important while the forage is young and prone to competition from invading species.

Control in an established stand

The best weed control in an established forage stand is achieved by maintaining a dense healthy stand through proper fertilization, cutting management, and insect control. Controlling weeds in established forages is normally of greatest benefit in the first cutting. Weeds generally contribute much less to yield in the second and succeeding harvests. Before using a herbicide in established stands, evaluate the forage to ensure it is worth the cost of the herbicide.

Below are some general rules to follow before using a herbicide in established forage stands:

1. Thin or irregular stands will not thicken once weeds are removed. Be sure there are sufficient desirable species to fill in the gaps. A minimum of five alfalfa plants per square foot should be present.

2. Weeds tolerant of the herbicide may invade the space left by susceptible species, ultimately creating a more severe weed problem.

3. Only well-established vigorous stands should be treated with herbicides.

4. If the forage stand is at least two years old and 25% to 30% are weeds, removing them with an herbicide application is of questionable value.

5. If 50% or greater of the stand are weeds, it is time to rotate to a different crop.

If weeds become a problem in established forages, several herbicide options are available. Chemical control in established forage legumes is often limited to late fall or early spring applications. Also, many products have harvesting, feeding, or grazing restrictions following their use.