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Estimating first-crop alfalfa harvest using PEAQ

mvburling/Getty Images Rows of Alfalfa
SLOWER GROWTH: Alfalfa growth has been slower than normal this year due to cool conditions in April. This is a good reminder that using a calendar date to determine when to harvest the first crop of alfalfa may not the best method.
The Predictive Equations for Alfalfa Quality method can help accurately determine the optimal time for the first cutting.

The growth and development of alfalfa is affected by many factors, including temperature, soil moisture, stand age and even cultivar. Alfalfa growth has been slower than normal due to cool conditions in April. This is a good reminder that using a calendar date to determine when to harvest the first crop of alfalfa may not the best method. In order to accurately predict the optimal time for the first cutting, the University of Wisconsin developed the Predictive Equations for Alfalfa Quality (PEAQ) method.

The PEAQ method uses alfalfa stand height and maturity stage (vegetative, bud or open flower) to estimate the relative feed value (RFV). In general, it is recommended to harvest alfalfa at about 150 RFV for milking dairy herds and 125 RFV for heifers, stocker cattle and lactating beef cattle. First-crop alfalfa left standing in the field can drop three to five RFV points per day. The steps on how to use the PEAQ method to determine when to make the first crop of alfalfa are listed below.

Table 1. Predictive equations for alfalfa quality (PEAQ). Source: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

While PEAQ provides a good estimate of RFV, adjustments for harvest loss should also be made. Even under the best harvest conditions, 10% to 20% of the forage dry matter will be lost at harvest. This amounts to approximately 15 RFV points for haylage and 25 RFV points for hay. Therefore, to end up with 150 RFV alfalfa, harvest the crop when PEAQ measurements estimate a RFV of 165 for a haylage harvest and 175 for a hay harvest. Additionally, weather forecasts and allowing proper drying time should be considered when deciding when to harvest alfalfa.

Steps for using PEAQ to determine when to take first-crop alfalfa

There are six steps to figuring out when to take your first-crop alfalfa:

Step 1. Choose a representative 2-square-foot area in the field.

Step 2. Determine the stage of the most mature stem in the area by using the definitions at the top of Table 1.

Step 3. Measure the tallest stem in the area. The tallest stem may not be the most mature stem. Measure the stem from the soil surface to the tip of the stem; not to the tip of the leaf. Straighten the stem for an accurate height measurement. Based on stem maturity and stem height, use Table 1 to estimate the RFV of standing alfalfa crop.

Step 4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 in five representative areas across the field.

Step 5. To estimate harvest quality, subtract 15 to 25 RFV units to account for harvest losses during the haylage or hay harvest process, respectively.

Step 6. Determine the optimum harvest time using the PEAQ estimate, livestock forage quality needs, considerations of upcoming weather forecasts favorable for harvest and drying, and the general assumption that RFV drops three to five points per day.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach maintains a PEAQ website that includes a fact sheet explaining how to use the PEAQ method to determine when to harvest first-crop alfalfa. This website also includes postings of PEAQ values from some alfalfa fields across Iowa being monitored by ISU Extension and Outreach staff.

Follow the progress in these reports, but remember that conditions can vary field-by-field. Therefore, it is recommended to take PEAQ measurements in your own fields for the best assessment of when to harvest alfalfa for the quality of forage you wish to achieve.

Michel is an Iowa State University Extension field agronomist.

Source: Iowa State University Integrated Crop Management News, which is responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and its subsidiaries aren't responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

 

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