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Forage fundamentals checklist

Jim Gransbery Published on 26 September 2015
Neal Fehringer inspects a swathed and raked windrow

A man of sincere beliefs, Neal Fehringer is not a fundamentalist. However, when it comes to producing forage crops, it is the fundamentals that have built and sustained his professional agronomy business in south-central Montana.

Fehringer is a 1979 graduate of Colorado State University at Fort Collins. He has a Bachelor of Science in agronomy with an emphasis on industry management and began his consulting service in 1981 as a certified professional agronomist and crop adviser.

On Aug. 1, on a high bench east of a small community in the Rock Creek Valley just north of the tourist ski center of Red Lodge, Montana, I caught up with Fehringer as he inspected fields of alfalfa and timothy. The pivot sprinkler-irrigated timothy was harvested and waiting for another drink.

One alfalfa field was swathed and raked and awaiting the baler; the second was ready for cutting as soon as the farm manager got the first one baled. Both were second cuttings. Spring came early to Montana this year, about three weeks ahead of normal, which has altered the harvesting for all crops, not just hay.

With 20 or more season-long clients for his consulting service, Fehringer practically lives in his truck with a cellphone in his ear as he travels around for on-site inspections and analyses. He also provides on-call consultations and frequently provides seminars during the winter months at grower meetings around Montana and Wyoming.

Fehringer insists on thinking at least a year ahead for planting a field and follows a 16-point mental checklist that allows for flexibility on a case-by-case basis but which is foundational for his agronomic business.

Residue management

When planning for a new field, Fehringer insists on thinking at least a crop ahead by considering what is on the field now and how to deal with residue management. “There is going to be a long-term investment,” he says, “so getting all the basics covered will cost around $100 per acre.” For example, a new field of alfalfa will last five to seven years, or 20 cuttings. “The key is to get the residue spread out and prepare a proper seed bed,” he says.

Herbicide rotational restrictions

Fehringer insists on the crop history of the field. Knowing the herbicide rotational restrictions is imperative. “There are some herbicides that require two or three years’ gap before putting alfalfa down,” Fehringer says. Keeping track of herbicide uses and restrictions is a continuous process for agricultural producers nowadays, as new products are always coming onto the market.

Soil testing and seed selection

Soil testing to determine what salts, sodium and nutrients are present comes next and leads to the next step of variety selection. What varieties are disease-resistant and salt-tolerant, and what is the preferred herbicide regimen?

Neal pushes a soil probe“Roundup Ready seeds or conventional is an important decision,” he says. There are some concerns about the RR varieties, and some customers do not want RR products, so that requires additional information as to where and how the product is going to be used.

Seedbed preparation

Seedbed preparation is essential for Fehringer, and he says, “It must be firm.” A loose bed makes it difficult to keep the alfalfa seed at the proper quarter-inch depth. He prefers planting into dry stubble.

Seeding date

Fehringer says a close look at the average last freezing date for the area is a must for determining the seeding date.

Seeding rate

“With the cost of seeds, the seeding rate needs to be right,” Fehringer says. “Too little, a poor stand; too much, there is extra cost. Roundup Ready seed runs $7 per acre, with conventional seed half that.” Avoided cost is a key component in Fehringer’s thinking when advising his clients.

There is no need to incur extra cost if the seeding rate is properly calculated and implemented. There are 250,000 seeds per pound of alfalfa seed, he says, which equates to six seeds per square foot. Ideally, he likes a rate of 10 to 15 pounds per acre, which requires a working drill. “These are little, simple basics,” Fehringer says. “Make sure the tubes are not plugged with cobwebs or parts are worn.”

Working drill

“Seed grass with a drill. Do not broadcast seed and work it in with a harrow or use a Brillion-type seeder. The number one mistake in planting forage seed is planting too deep,” he says.

Seeding depth and companion crop

Seeding depths are specific. For alfalfa seeding, depth is a quarter-inch; for grass, seeding depth is a half-inch. Citing a Montana State University study, Fehringer says planting into a cover or companion crop is a no-no. “It is wrong. I prefer to plant into small-grain stubble to protect the seedlings.”

Weed control

Early weed control comes in two variations – Roundup or conventional herbicides. “You must be on top of this, as weeds hurt the development and life of the stand,” Fehringer says.


Insects, too, must be controlled. Be on the lookout for cutworms and alfalfa weevils. “We had an early spring, and cutworms came out in some places in February,” he says. Fehringer is especially concerned about weevils in that the larva eat the leaves before harvest and 70 percent of the alfalfa protein is in the leaves.

Water management

Water management is crucial for alfalfa and grass. The Goldilocks formula comes into play, “Not too much or too little, but just right,” Fehringer says. Alfalfa requires 4¼ inches per ton, and grass needs 4 inches. “Water management is critical as roots breathe as humans breathe, and too much water is not good for either one,” he says.

probing soil

“Alfalfa does not like wet feet.” Also, too much water encourages the development of phytophthora root rot if the variety has poor resistance or the soil is too wet.

Harvest management

Is the hay going to the dairy barn or to the haystack for beef cattle feed? The answer to that question will affect harvest management. For dairy-quality hay, alfalfa should be harvested while in the bud stage when protein is highest. For higher tonnage, the stand should be harvested at early bloom stage.


The stand will deteriorate over time. Initially, it should have 10 to 12 plants per square foot, Fehringer says. It should be taken out when there are less than four plants per square foot. With proper management, a stand should last for 20 cuttings.


Fehringer does not favor grazing, as it reduces the life of the stand. “It is good feed, but you are paying a price for it,” he said.  FG

Jim Gransbery, a professional journalist of 40 years, writes from Billings, Montana.

PHOTO 1: Neal Fehringer inspects a swathed and raked windrow

PHOTO 2: Neal Fehringer pushes a soil probe into a harvested field of timothy hay. The square-foot measure in the background is used to count plants per square foot.

PHOTO 3: Full probe of soil in harvested field of timothy hay awaiting the next round of irrigation. Photos courtesy of Jim Gransbery.