Summer and Fall Management Practices for Alfalfa​

To increase the possibility of winter survivability, a late-summer alfalfa cutting should occur early enough so plants can regrow, produce, and store carbohydrates in the roots and crowns before entering fall dormancy. An accurate stand evaluation is critical for estimating yield potential for estimating yield potential and if the existing stand should be kept for the following year. Fertility, especially potassium, should be maintained at high levels for maximizing alfalfa tonnage.

What to Watch For

Alfalfa needs a harvesting break of about 6 to 8 weeks prior to the first killing frost. In northern areas, this timeframe is roughly the first of September through mid-October and later in more southern areas.1 The resting period allows plants to rebuild carbohydrate (CHO) reserves that are needed for spring regrowth before winter begins. If the crop is harvested during the rest period, the speed of spring regrowth may be reduced, stands may thin, and tonnage potential may be lower. Research has shown that a late-fall cutting can be made if less than 200 growing degree days (GDD, using the base temperature of 41 °F) accumulate after the cutting. The GDD benchmark generally helps prevent measurable regrowth and depletion of root-stored CHOs before the crop enters the winter season.2

Evaluating Established Stands

Fall is the best time to evaluate established alfalfa stands for future productivity by counting stems. Older stands tend to have fewer plants but more stems/plant. To estimate tonnage potential begin by counting stems that are 4 to 6-inches tall within a framed area of either 17X17 inches or 24X24 inches at 4 to 5 field locations (Figure 1). Take the average of the counts and divide this number by 2 to determine the average stems/sq ft. If the stem count is more than 55, tonnage potential is considered to be 100%. Stand replacement should be considered if the count is 40 or a tonnage potential of about 72%

Figure 1. Alfalfa stem count method.

Nutrients and Soil pH

Each ton of alfalfa dry matter removes about 14 pounds of phosphate (P2O5), 58 pounds of potash (K2O), 30 pounds of calcium, 6 pounds of magnesium, and 6 pounds of sulfur.1 A soil test should be made to determine existing soil nutrient levels, especially pH, phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) to help avoid over or under fertilizing in the future. However, for sulfur a tissue test is the most accurate method to assess the need.

The recommended soil pH level for alfalfa production is between 6.8 to 7.0. Split applications of P and K, based on tonnage goals, are recommended after the first cutting and again in late summer. If all fertilizer is applied as one annual application, it should be applied in early fall to help minimize the potential for winter injury. 

Autotoxicity

Autotoxicity (growth inhibition by same species) can occur if an attempt is made to reseed alfalfa into an existing stand of 2 or more years. However, reseeding into an existing stand is generally successful if the stand is less than 1 year old, and soil pH and fertility are at recommended levels. In situations where the alfalfa stands are thin, but it is not practical to destroy the stand, consider interseeding with grasses or clover to help meet forage needs. 

Weed Management

Conventional alfalfa products have limited weed control options, which can hinder stand establishment and persistence resulting in lower tonnage potential. A Roundup Ready® Alfalfa system gives alfalfa producers the advantage of broad-spectrum weed control and application flexibility with Roundup brand glyphosate-only agricultural herbicides and may reduce potential crop injury or future rotational concerns (Figure 2). Based on the weeds present in the alfalfa crop, one or more herbicides with different effective sites of action should be used at least once during the middle years of the stand to help reduce the potential for selecting herbicide resistant weed populations. However, if using a Roundup ready product, Roundup will not be an option for weed control.

Figure 2. Regrowth of alfalfa with Roundup Ready® technology after a postemergence application of a Roundup® brand glyphosate-only agricultural herbicide (left) compared to conventional alfalfa after a postemergence application of a conventional herbicide (right).

Summary

  • Winter survivability may be improved if the last cutting is completed by late-summer, which allows for root reserves to be replenished, or waiting and making a final cutting after the first hard-freeze (24 °F or lower) may not hurt alfalfa and may help reduce pest problems.3
  • Carbohydrates stored in the roots and crowns provide energy for regrowth after harvest and may improve winter hardiness to help survive winter temperatures.
  • Providing an adequate supply of nutrients, especially K, is important for helping to maintain high tonnage potential.
  • Alfalfa seedings following alfalfa rotations are usually unsuccessful due to autotoxicity. Reseeding thin stands is somewhat successful during the initial year of establishment and with proper soil pH, fertility, and minimal disease or pest pressure.
  • An alternative crop should be grown for a minimum of one year to negate autotoxicity before seeding alfalfa again.
  • Planting an alfalfa product with Roundup Ready® technology can help increase establishment, forage quality, and tonnage potential by offering more weed control options compared to planting conventional alfalfa products.
  • Consideration should be given to the planting of HarvXtra® Alfalfa with Roundup Ready® technology. It is a biotechnology-derived trait that provides reduced amounts of indigestible lignin at harvest when compared to conventional products of the same harvest age. The trait provides a wider cutting window which gives farmers greater harvest flexibility and essentially eases the tonnage versus quality trade-off faced by alfalfa producers. Additionally, fewer cuttings may be made throughout the year while maintaining quality and overall tonnage potential. This allows the final cutting to be made earlier, which improves CHO storage in the roots and increases the potential for winter survivability.

The Alfalfa Management Guide is a publication developed by Extension specialists from several universities to give an overview on alfalfa best management practices. The guide can be found at: https://www.agronomy.org/files/publications/alfalfa-management-guide.pdf​.​

Sources:

1Undersander, D., Cosgrove, D., Cullen, E. 2011. Alfalfa management guide. American Society of Agronomy, Inc. https://agronomy.org/

2Barnhart, S. 1999. Fall harvest management of alfalfa. Integrated Crop Management. Iowa State University. http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/icm/1999/9-13-1999/alfalfaman.html

3Lacefield, G.D., Henning, J.C., Rasnake, M., and Collins, M. 1997. Alfalfa - the queen of forage crops. AGR-76. University of Kentucky. Additional

Sources: Summers, C.G, Putnam, D.H, et al. 2008. Irrigated alfalfa management for Mediterranean and desert zones. Publication 3512. University of California. http://alfalfa.ucdavis.edu/IrrigatedAlfalfa/ Kaatz, P. 2015. Assessing sulfur fertility levels for alfalfa. http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/assessing_sulfur_fertility_levels_for_alfalfa Web sources verified 6/29/18. 130930014001 

This browser is no longer supported. Please switch to a supported browser: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari.