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Alfalfa quality, yield, productivity: Do you have to choose?

Tim Meister Published on 15 May 2013

When it comes to alfalfa, many growers believe they have to choose quality, yield or productivity and that increasing one element will automatically reduce the others.

Fortunately, you don’t have to trade one for the other, if you keep a few fundamentals in mind:

Cut later. Many recent studies have shown the best time of day to cut alfalfa to achieve maximum quality is in the afternoon.

This is an easy way to improve quality with no impact on yield or productivity. However, cutting in the afternoon isn’t always feasible.

In those situations, there are other opportunities to improve quality that are often overlooked or misinterpreted.

Cut higher. Chasing yield – at the expense of quality – is one of the most common errors in alfalfa production.

For instance, many growers cut as low to the ground as possible in an attempt to increase yield when, in reality, all it does is increase the amount of dirt ingested in the windrow.

You might add 4 percent in total yield by tilting the cutterbar downward, but if that 4 percent is mostly ash, you haven’t done yourself any favors.

Try cutting a little higher. This will reduce the amount of ash in the windrow. Higher stubble can also elevate the windrow, which helps in drying and makes picking up the alfalfa easier with a higher setting on the pick-up teeth.

The setting of the pick-up teeth on the head or rake tines can also have a marked effect on the amount of ash ingested with the crop. Set them as high as you can and still be able to pick up the windrow.

Cut wide-conditioned windrows. There have been studies published that suggest wide, unconditioned windrows dry faster than narrow, conditioned windrows.

While this is true, most studies never compare the third alternative: wide, conditioned windrows. This alternative normally will yield the fastest drydown.

Windrow formation can have a profound effect on drydown and quality. Cutting, merging or raking at a speed that makes a uniform windrow can be better than raking or merging at a higher speed with uneven windrows. Uniform windrows may also help avoid wet spots in bales, which can lead to molding or heating.

Tips for cutting haylage. When making haylage, all of the same principles discussed above (cutting the crop, setting the pick-up teeth on the header and merger, setting the rake teeth and making uniform windrows) will help to maximize quality.

There are a couple of other added items that can improve haylage. One is to use a quality inoculant applied at the forage harvester.

Inoculant will jump-start the fermentation process and applying it at the forage harvester provides the most even distribution of the product.

Modern self-propelled forage harvesters can apply inoculant based on throughput of the machine, which is the best possible scenario for applying inoculant.

One final piece that is often overlooked is the length of cut of haylage. Since haylage is always windrowed and normally fed into the machine with an auger on the head, the length of cut is usually not as consistent as the length of cut when harvesting corn.

Because of this, alfalfa tends to get longer pieces in it. This can make dry alfalfa difficult to pack. Modern forage harvesters can be equipped with moisture sensors that give the driver an accurate moisture measurement.

Some forage harvesters can automatically adjust the length of cut based on moisture readings. This feature is programmed by the operator’s specifications.

A moisture sensor can be a valuable tool to determine when it is time to shorten the length of cut. Equally, a moisture sensor can be a good protection from putting up haylage that is too wet.

Length of cut management, combined with a little extra packing weight, can make a big difference in the amount of shrink realized.

While the weather always has a tremendous role to play in producing quality alfalfa, there are steps that can be taken to help the cause regardless of the quality of the stand.

Productivity, quality and yield are somehow intermingled, and while improving one of these three parameters may be seen as a positive, it may come at the expense of another parameter.

Fortunately, there are simple steps to help ensure the best quality without major sacrifices in other areas.  FG

—Excerpts from NAFA News – January 2013

Tim Meister
Division Marketing Manager
John Deere