Wallaces Farmer

Farmers evaluating alternatives with winterkill and winter injury on alfalfa.

Rod Swoboda 1, Editor, Wallaces Farmer

May 6, 2008

4 Min Read

Significant areas of alfalfa winterkill are now evident in Iowa. The worst areas are along the Highway 20 corridor in eastern and northeast Iowa, with notable losses to the Minnesota border in Iowa and also in random fields in other parts of the state. "Alfalfa crown and upper taproot tissue that was frozen is not able to recover," says Steve Barnhart, Iowa State University Extension forage agronomist. "Evidence of the injury was delayed because some plants began to green-up earlier this spring and then died. Plants that still exhibit good, healthy taproot tissue and crown tissue are likely unaffected."

The decision farmers who grow alfalfa must make is whether to keep a less productive field, whether to try to boost the production of forage from that field by supplemental seeding, or to plan on planting a new alfalfa field as well as planting an "emergency" short-term forage crop for immediate future forage needs. Some of the most common questions Barnhart is receiving, and the answers he is giving, are as follows.

What fields are still worth keeping?

The answer to this varies greatly. Research would say that a 'keeper' field with no appreciable yield loss would be a first production year field with 12 or more healthy plants per square foot; second and third production year fields, six or more crowns per square foot; and older fields, four or more healthy plants per square foot. Or, stands of any age with 55 or more harvestable stems per square foot and healthy taproots.

Any fields with less than that stand level will likely produce proportionally less yield per acre, says Barnhart. Associated forage grasses may compensate some toward higher seasonal yields as alfalfa stands decline. Farmers often choose to retain less productive fields out of necessity or convenience.

Can I interseed to thicken the stand – with more alfalfa?

Interseeding alfalfa to thicken a uniformly thin alfalfa stand will generally not work, he notes. If the stand is one year or less old, plants will generally come up and then be outcompeted by the survivors from last year. Large dead spots should be disked first and then seeded. If the stand is two or more years old, interseeded alfalfa will be adversely affected by autotoxicity.

For two or more year old alfalfa stands, autotoxic compounds will likely reduce the stand and/or future yield of the alfalfa and you should wait one year before reseeding.

You can interseed grasses (annual ryegrass for one year or orchardgrass or tall fescue for two or more years) or clovers to thicken a stand.

What are options for 'emergency forage crop'?

This decision depends on when you need the forage, and what kind of storage is to be used, says Barnhart.

* Tonnage is needed. When tonnage is needed quickly to replace a lost first cutting, planting a small grain crop is the best option to replace that loss of the first of cutting alfalfa. The crop will be able to be harvested at the middle to end of June. Oats is likely the best choice, spring triticale a second choice and barley a third choice (due to lower yield). Harvest can be as silage or hay.

Another option to consider is planting small grain with peas. Planting small grain with peas (60 pounds per acre of 50/50 mix) will increase crude protein and palatability of the mix but not yield. Harvest is most often made as silage.

What about planting a spring planting of winter wheat, winter rye or winter triticale? That is not a good idea due to low yield.

* High season-long yield is needed. When high season-long yield is needed for regular silage, corn is the best high-tonnage option, says Barnhart.

If you want to harvest forage silage, then the best choices are seeding sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, sudangrass, Japanese millet, hybrid pearl millet; or alfalfa seeded alone (12 to 15 pounds per acre) into a field where alfalfa autotoxicity is not a concern (see above), or plant Italian or annual ryegrass at 2 to 4 pounds per acre with alfalfa (12 pounds per acre)

If you want to harvest it as hay, then your best choices are small grains such as oats, spring triticale a second choice and barley a third choice (due to lower yield). Alfalfa seeded alone (12 to 15 pounds per acre) into a field where alfalfa autotoxicity is not a concern (see above), or plant Italian or annual ryegrass at 2 to 4 pounds per acre with alfalfa (12 pounds per acre).

Sudangrass will produce the most tonnage for a multi-cut annual for those who want grass hay two to three cuttings harvested at 36 to 40 inches in height). Japanese millet is also a multi-cut summer annual option. Some farmers have difficulty drying sudangrass and Japanese millet thoroughly enough for safe dry hay storage. Foxtail millet is an annual one-cut emergency crop for dry hay. Teff, a relatively new annual grass to the U.S., is a new possible alternative. However, teff grass has not been widely tested in the Midwest and seed supplies are virtually non-existent, he says.

About the Author(s)

Rod Swoboda 1

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Rod, who has been a member of the editorial staff of Wallaces Farmer magazine since 1976, was appointed editor of the magazine in April 2003. He is widely recognized around the state, especially for his articles on crop production and soil conservation topics, and has won several writing awards, in addition to honors from farm, commodity and conservation organizations.

"As only the tenth person to hold the position of Wallaces Farmer editor in the past 100 years, I take seriously my responsibility to provide readers with timely articles useful to them in their farming operations," Rod says.

Raised on a farm that is still owned and operated by his family, Rod enjoys writing and interviewing farmers and others involved in agriculture, as well as planning and editing the magazine. You can also find Rod at other Farm Progress Company activities where he has responsibilities associated with the magazine, including hosting the Farm Progress Show, Farm Progress Hay Expo and the Iowa Master Farmer program.

A University of Illinois grad with a Bachelors of Science degree in agriculture (ag journalism major), Rod joined Wallaces Farmer after working several years in Washington D.C. as a writer for Farm Business Incorporated.

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