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Getting the most out of spring alfalfa cutting

Fast facts

  • Alfalfa harvest dictated by grower goals
  • Alfalfa, a legume, needs different treatment from grass
  • Scouting for weeds, insects a must to keep crop stress low 

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Coming out of winter, alfalfa isn’t at its most vigorous and hay producers need to take a little extra care in that first spring cutting, said Dirk Philipp, assistant professor for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Unlike other hay, which is cut from grasses, alfalfa is a legume. Its taproot and growth routine, plus the grower’s goals for the crop dictate how it should be cut.

A cut of 1- to 2-inches is recommended, but on a defined schedule to encourage regrowth as the plant draws energy from its taproot.

“Alfalfa should be cut higher when the stands emerge weakened from the winter months,” he said “This is the case after an unusual cold winter or when alfalfa stands were cut too late in fall so they could not replenish root carbohydrate reserves.”

Philipp said that cutting height is a “good compromise between yield and quality.”

Although the lower part of the alfalfa stem is lower quality than upper stem ad leaves, “the amount of forage dry matter harvested outweighs the disadvantages from the slightly less overall quality,” he said.

Harvesting window

Timing is key to haying alfalfa. For growers keen on persistence and yield in the crop, Philipp recommends cutting between first flower and 20 percent flower, which provides a wider window. For high-quality alfalfa, there’s a much more narrow cutting window, “maybe just three to four days to achieve the highest quality,” he said. “This is difficult to achieve as spring growth can be very fast in comparison to fall growth.”

“Due to generally narrow harvesting windows, producers in Arkansas with erratic spring weather might have to make a compromise between quality and persistence for stand longevity,” he said.

Keeping stress low

Reducing stress on the crop during the growing season is a must. This includes keeping soil fertility and pH levels in check, controlling weeds and insects as needed and scouting regularly for insects and damage.

“The recommended low cutting height will also control weed incidence,” he said.

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By Mary Hightower
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Mary Hightower
Dir. of Communication Services
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
(501) 671-2126

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