First cut alfalfa: yield or quality? You have little time to decide.
Determining when to make the first alfalfa cut of the year is different and somewhat unpredictable each year. In part, this is because weather conditions during this period of the growing season vary so greatly. But the decision on when to cut is also impacted by your goals for yield, nutrient quality, digestibility, haylage or dried hay, expectations for multiple cuttings and more factors.
First-cut timing establishes the rest of the growing season including the number of future cuttings, the time between harvests, and how late into the fall that last cut will be harvested.
Below are four considerations novel to alfalfa crops and how these fit with your production goals to help establish timing on the first cut.
1. Growing Environment — moisture stress and/or cool temperatures mean slower growth but also result in a slower decline of forage quality. Alternately, high temperatures lead to increased growth (presuming adequate moisture) but result in a more rapid decline in digestibility.
2. Fiber digestibility — nutrient dense fiber digestibility from the first-cutting is often higher than other cuttings throughout the season and can, therefore, have a direct impact on milk production.
3. Quality over quantity — though the first cut holds the opportunity for harvesting the highest digestible fiber of the growing season, forage quality declines at a faster pace compared to cuttings later in the year. Optimal timing for that first-cut is critical if premium forage quality is the number one goal.
4. Yield Potential — spring alfalfa growth nearly always has the highest percentage of total-season dry matter yield. Therefore, there are economic consequences associated with making a timing mistake because there is usually more forage available than during any other cutting.
When to cut is a question every farm will have a different answer for based on their goals; but it’s question that needs to be discussed with the farm’s management team and/or with a qualified nutritionist and agronomist from Northside. Establish your goals and put a plan in place early on. Once buds start forming at the end of stems, quality starts dropping rapidly. Once you see flowers, you’re really too late from a quality standpoint, but high yield still has potential.