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Consider winter survival when choosing alfalfa varieties

Where you are in the state and the chances for open winters may affect your choices for alfalfa seed varieties and winter survival ratings.

March 29, 2023

2 Min Read
Tractor in alfalfa field
GOOD VARIETIES: Getting the right alfalfa seed in the ground, with the correct winter survival ratings, helps improve yield and production in the long run. Curt Arens

by Ben Beckman

The time for spring planting alfalfa is just around the corner, and selecting the right seed is crucial. Two traits we should take extra time to consider are fall dormancy and winter survival. These traits are often treated the same; but they are, in fact, different.

Winter survival, or winterhardiness, is the ability for an alfalfa plant to make it through winter without injury once the plant goes dormant. This is different than the fall dormancy rating, which measures the alfalfa’s ability to prepare for and recover from dormancy. Winter survival is measured on a 1-to-6 scale, with 1 being extremely hardy and 6 not hardy. For Nebraska, a winter survival rating of 3 is about as high as we want to go. 

As temperatures drop and days shorten, alfalfa plants change their physiology to survive freezing temperatures and make it through winter. While increased hardiness can result in reduced yield potential, for a high-dollar perennial forage, having a full stand year after year is better in the long run.

In the past, winter survival traits were linked with fall dormancy. With new varieties, this isn’t always the case, so winter survival needs to be evaluated on their own.

We want to pick a winter survival ranking that will get us through winter without compromising yield. Where you are in the state plays a big role in what to pick. Winter temperatures affect the choice, but maintained snow cover is important, too. As snow can help insulate the ground, parts of the state that regularly have open winters may need as high or higher survival rating than colder locations with winterlong snow cover. Bottom line for Nebraska: A winter survival rating of 3 is about as high as we want to go, and areas with open winters or regularly colder temperatures should be even lower. 

Beckman is a Nebraska Extension educator.

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