Cutting Corners During Alfalfa Stand Establishment Doesn’t Pay!
Don Miller, PhD.
Director of Product Development
In today’s difficult economic times, farmers are continually analyzing their farming operations to see where they can reduce costs. However, when it comes to identifying cost savings when planting alfalfa, caution should be applied in two main areas. First, any cost saving decision that negatively impacts stand establishment may end up costing the producer significantly more over time than the expected savings. Unlike annual crops such as corn or soybeans, an alfalfa stand lasts longer and an establishment short-coming can limit a field’s potential for the next 3-5 years. Second, performance of an alfalfa stand is also highly influenced by the variety planted and requires more attention than a quick seed cost per bag decision.
Cost Savings Versus Cutting Corners?
The following are some agronomic and management practices for the upper Midwest that have proven to be effective in establishing a productive and profitable alfalfa stand.
Field Selection: Alfalfa can be grown in a wide range of soil types, however prior to planting the following field criteria should be considered. Fields with good surface and internal drainage are generally the most productive. Check for planting restrictions from prior crop herbicide applications.
Soil Test: A soil test should be conducted at least six months prior to planting to see if there are any fertility and/or soil related factors that need to be addressed. The most productive fields are those with good fertility and a pH in the range of 6.5-7.5. Soil pH below 6 or above 8.4 will need to be corrected before planting alfalfa. Remember, dollars spent correcting pH before establishing alfalfa can be your highest cropping ROI on the farm.
Fertility: For many upper Midwest alfalfa growers, alfalfa follows corn where liquid manure is a primary N source, plus delivering residual levels of K for the coming alfalfa crop. A valuable source of nutrients, but stay within your farm nutrient plan.
Weed Control: The best weed control measure for a new alfalfa planting is making sure you start out with a thick, dense stand. Several good pre-plant and post herbicides, including glyphosate, are available for alfalfa and can be beneficial in eliminating weed competition during stand establishment.
Seedbed Preparation: The importance of a preparing a good seedbed before planting alfalfa cannot be over emphasized. A seedbed needs to be firm and not cloddy or powdery. A firm seedbed enhances the ability to place the seed at the proper seed depth and provides good seed to soil contact for optimal germination. A proper seed bed not only impacts germination, but also the speed of haymaking operations after establishment. Additionally, a rough field can impact ash content as well.
Variety Selection: The selection of an inferior alfalfa variety or blend, based solely on price per bag, should be avoided. While a $50 per acre difference in up-front seed cost is tempting, this difference is usually recouped quickly via additional yield and/or forage quality from the top varieties. The new high yielding varieties with Hi-Gest® and HarvXtra® technologies are now available with significant improvements in fiber digestibility, harvest flexibility and animal performance. Consult with your seed dealer for his advice and recommendations as you move to a decision.
Nurse Crops: Direct seeding of alfalfa generally results in the most productive stands. If you don’t need a nurse crop for establishment, don’t use one. Keep in mind a nurse crop is essentially a weed competing with the new alfalfa seedling for water, nutrients and light. If the field slope or crop plan calls for a nurse crop, use a low planting rate for the nurse crop and harvest the small grain crop at the early boot stage.
Seed Treatments: Most if not all alfalfa seed is sold pre-inoculated and carry fungicide treatments such as Apron XL® and Stamina® for to enhance seedling survival during establishment. Coated seed with these additives included is becoming more popular and is generally less expensive per pound than raw seed. Despite having less seeds per bag due to the 34% coating, the enhanced seedling survival of coated seed when planted pound-to-pound provides equal or superior stands at season end.
Timing of Planting: Alfalfa can be planted in the spring or fall. However, the preference for fall or spring plantings may be influenced by moisture and/or the ability to work the ground in a timely manner before planting.
Planting Rate: Plant enough seed (15-20 lbs./acre) to make sure you have a top-notch initial stand. Thin stands are very difficult to thicken up later in the season.
Seed Depth: Optimal planting depth for alfalfa is 1/4 – 1/2 inch. Most failures are the result of the seed notplanted in a firm seedbed, and placing the seed too deep for proper emergence. Monitor the seed depth as you plant a field.
Planting Equipment: A wide range of planters can be used to plant alfalfa successfully, including grain drills, precision drills, Brillion packer types, airflow spreaders and no-till drills. If you are planting in rows be sure to use the planter press wheels for good soil to seed contact and keep the spacing relatively narrow to discourage weeds competition. Broadcast plantings may need to be rolled/packed before and after planting to provide better seed to soil contact. The key to a successful stand, regardless of the planting method, is seed placement in a firm seedbed with good seed to soil contact.
Take the Time, Do It Right!
More often than not, when establishing an alfalfa stand, it’s taking the time to do it right that is the number one key to success. You have heard the dos and don’ts dozens of times. Don’t let the pressures of the day or pending weather make cutting a corner tempting. Take a deep breath and do it the right way. You’ll be glad you did for the life of the stand!