Is Early Cutting Best for Early Alfalfa?

Is Early Cutting Best for Early Alfalfa?

April 20, 2012

On this week's Market Journal Extension Forage Specialist Bruce Anderson says most frost damage to alfalfa probably wasn't enough to warrant an early first cutting and advises how to best assess damage in your fields.

With early spring temperatures alfalfa is already to the point when you would take the first cutting.   The first alfalfa cutting often is the most important one of the year. It usually produces the most yield and its forage quality changes fastest from day to day. Alfalfa started growing like gangbusters this spring, is knee high in many places, and looks like it could be ready to cut right now.  But should you?

The first thing you should consider is health of your alfalfa. If it is healthy and developing normally although early, and you can use extra high quality forage, there should be no harm in cutting at this early calendar date. However, if you don’t need that extra high quality, wait a little longer. Tonnage can increase substantially between first bloom and full bloom. You still might end up cutting a couple weeks earlier than usual while starting the harvest year off with a boost in yield. Protein concentration and other quality factors will be a little lower but I don’t think they'll be too bad.

The alfalfa I have seen this spring looks like it has finer stems than usual for first cutting, which might keep quality higher for any comparable stage of maturity. 

There are some risks, though, in waiting. Will you have good haying weather when you decide to cut? Will insects or diseases attack plants and lower yield or quality?

Selecting the right time to cut hay always is a challenge. This year it may be particularly hard to decide. Other field work is competing and we have no experience with this early season.

Still, I think it’s a nice problem to have.

Bruce Anderson
Extension Forage Specialist