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I need some alfalfa advice

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whiteface

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I would value the opinion of any of you who have it and are willing to hand it out. At exactly at what time of year and/or the growth stage of alfalfa plants is your opinion on when they are the most vulnerable to being cut that would risk the death of the plants themselves? Put another way...my second cut is at 1% bloom right now and healthy as anything but I am passionatly concerned at preserving the life of the plants themselves. Meaning I would like to know if any of you have an opinion at when and what stage is the most efficient at securing the plants as feed without sacrificing the overall health of the plants themselves. I vaguely remember someone telling me that Aug 15th was like the cut-off date for harvesting alfalfa if you didn't want to lose the plants to frost or whatever else nature throws at us here in the great white north. Also I've been told to not graze the cattle on it until after the frost but I think that advice is more for bloat reasons than the safety of the plants. Bottom line for me is that it is a superb catch, an awesome produceing field ( 4 bales plus per acre when cut twice a year ) and I'm none too interested in haveing to risk digging it up and re-seeding any time soon for all kinds of reasons.
If any of you have any real knowledge or experiences with what worked for you and what didn't it would be very helpful and appreciated by me. Remember I live in the arctic and it could snow twelve feet literally anytime so tell me when all of you feel the plants are putting the most reserve into their roots to make a comeback for next year. Should they be left to "go to seed" and then cut or cut now to "recover" before winter. Bear in mind like I said we could get twelve feet tommorrow and my concern of course it cutting the plants too close to winter kill that zaps all their ability to actually survive the winter.
I know it's a lot of writing, but these are the details I'm wrestling with in my head and all of you "detailed" guys (SH and Agman, I could use you here also! esp. with your research abilities!!!!!!) would be invaluable to me right now.
I chose the bull session because this is where I normally hang out even though it may have been better suited elsewhere and you all on ranchers are more opinionated than agri-ville. Give me whatever you got!
Thanks in advance and have a great day!
 
A

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Whiteface- I think you can safely cut it anytime...We've had new fields that we clipped prebloom just to get them to grow back, fields that were cut in about 1/10 to 1/4 bloom for the dairy people and most we cut at full bloom...The full bloom gives you courser hay, but gives you more...Most of my fields also are a grass mixture, so I wait as long as possible to let the grass get good regrowth....I live in a harsh area too and we cut hay well into September-(altho you probably get earlier frosts)- even took third and fourth cuttings once or twice in October....I think more important anymore is to get the winter hardy varieties- some varieties do good for a year or two, than winterkill- some seem to keep going for years....When in doubt I always just go back to plain old Vernal- deep rooted and big stalked- but it survives the drought and the cold better than any I've tried- doesn't give me as heavy a crop as some of the newer hybrids and stuff- but it just keeps on ticking-and its cheap....

As far as grazing the biggest worry with new alfalfa fields is to make sure its rooted down good before you graze or the cows can pull it right up...We always wait until a good frost to graze- first because of bloat and secondly I have been told that the alfalfa is then dormant and the cows walking on it is less apt to kill it-- I know some hay producers-especially those that raise the pricey dairy hay that won't graze at all...With my fields that have orchardgrass and fescue, they will grow long after the first frost puts the alfalfa into dormancy.....

I've read studies comparing fall clipping heights and leaving growth-but none seemed to be that overwhelmingly convincing that changed me from just doing what I am- and much of my cutting decision is based on what I have to work with at the time, what more I need, weather, and time available to do it.....

Something you may think about- if you don't need the hay- let it get grown back good- swath it- and after the frost let the cows graze the swaths...Neighbor did this one year (not on purpose- winter moved in too fast) and ended up with the cows grazing on those swaths most of the winter- they'd nose right down thru the snow.... I tried it with one weedy field last year and it worked pretty good- definitely get more than if its left standing to go to stalks.....
 

Kato

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In Manitoba the 15th of August cut off is the way we do it. That way the plant can recover and put nutrients into it's root system. For a certain length of time after cutting the plant directs it's energy into producing new leaves, and then it turns to replenishing the roots for next year's growth. If it doesn't have enough time to do this, then the plant is easy to winter kill.

The other option is to wait until a good frost, then either cut it or graze it. If you graze it down too low, though, it's very hard on it in a year when we don't get much snow. The tops need to be frozen well too, not just a touch of frost. You want to make sure the plant is dormant.
 

whiteface

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Really appreciate that advice guys. I'm thinking that within the next week I'll put the pressure on my hay guy to get going on it. Seems all the timothy guys are just going crazy right now with the conditions just about perfect for that export market. Might be tough to get my hay cut if no one is able to do it just yet, so I had some concerns about what might happen to the plants if I were to go too late with them and then of course the infamous snowless winter with million mile an hour frozen winds for months on end eroding the hell out of the topsoil and no leaf cover to protect them. Nice to hear from you Oldtimer and Kato, you two certainly live in the same kind of conditions that I enjoy here. I have no idea what variety of plants I have only that they've been simply amazing up til now and I would certainly like to do all I can to preserve that. Thanks again and have a good evening all!
 

Jason

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Whiteface, if I gather correctly you are North of me, in a better moisture area than I am.

Alfalfa puts down root reserves after flowering. It also relies on soil phosphorus content. Good soil with a strong plant cut anytime before Sept should be safe. Some here say Sept is the critical month, but I have seen many cut in Sept and be fine.

The other thing I have noticed is plants cut slightly higher do recoup faster. We started using a swather 3-4 years ago instead of a haybine and the alfalfa has recovered better even in dry conditions. My stands are 13-15 years old.
 
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Whiteface,

I can't give you the advice you are looking for because our climate is totally different than yours. On this issue, you need to take the advice of those who have the same climate as you not the advise from someone in SD that has never seen alfalfa winterkill from late cutting. Many guys in this area are clipping alfalfa for seed in Sept and Oct.

Sorry Whiteface but this here's a Canadian or "northern climate" issue, not a SD issue, maam!


~SH~
 

whiteface

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That's nice news to hear Jason. My stand is 4 years old and I cringe at just how many times I've heard that alfalfa is only good for about 5 before you have to re-seed it. I'm in Olds, AB and what I've sort of concluded is that land prices are outrageous, so guys feel they have to work the land harder ( you know as high a yield and as many cuts as possible ) that they just exhaust the heck out of their fields and plants when simply ( of course if you can "afford" to ) just backing off just a little could save me the huge expense of re-seeding it every I don't know how many years. Those are just the cost options I see in front of me. I don't have my own machinery because I think there's too much money to be tied into it. So I beg and plead with people to do my custom work for me and it's a headache on a good day. They're busy trying to make a living too and of course everyone knows that everyone needs to seed, harvest, cut hay etc. all at the same time. Hard to get people to do stuff like re-seed and the expense sure adds up if I have to do it every few years. Really, I just as soon graze year round but I'm sure those plants won't take that kind of constant traffic either and with our winters and a bizillion feet of snow and vicious winds, tough asking those cows to go out and graze swaths and let that wind just evaporate all the feed they're eating right off their backs. So I certainly do need the hay.
I sort of suspect that too, that the plants will put down roots after it flowers. I never let mine get much of flower stage so I seriously wonder it I just need to "let it go" one year out of, I don't know 3 or 4 or 10 or whatever. Everything in life needs opportunity to reproduce or it dies out completely (or you're stuck re-seeding and with gas prices and unpredictable rain, not a neat option!)
I have good friends in a less valuable land area in Saskatchewan, they only cut once every year and like you Jason, a very old stand ( I'm thinking like 15 years and still in real good shape ) then they graze after frost to whenever they can. The plants always get opportunity to flower and I think seed before the winter and cows have at 'em so I have some suspicion that if I want to keep my plants in nice shape I should consider these management practices. Around here it's pound, pound, pound. Pounds per acre, pound the crap out of the fields, fertilize the hell out them...
And I suppose they have too, you can't afford your property taxes around here without a minimum 90 bu barley crop or less than 3-4 tons and acre of your hayfields it seems. Then fuel is up, fertilizer is up, land prices just don't stop, push, push, push harder.
Not being stuck-up, but I could "afford" to let the field just run it's life cycle one year or two if that in fact is what's best for it to survive long term, which is definatly my goal here.
The advice is invaluable, thanks again. Just where are you Jason and do you irrigate your fields? You know we don't in Olds but I'm just curious if that helps the vigor of the plants once you've cut them. Raining here this morning makes me feel a whole lot better about cutting next week. They will have a drink to come back on before winter. What kind of fertilizer, if any, is good for straight alfalfa (no grass). I'm told everything from none at all (it makes it's own) to maybe some potassium or potash in the fall. Of course do a soil test (more money that I'm not sure really helps my cause, but have considered it). I'm more interested in the advice of those that bin there done that. Thanks.
Thanks, guys and have a good day!
 

Jason

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I'm down South of Ft. Macleod, in the windiest place in the world. Wind turbines might be the biggest business here in another 10 years.

Spend the money on a soil test. I work with Mid-west Labs out of Calgary. A good micro-nutrient water soluble test costs $120 through me. It lets you know exactly how your field is holding up.

Phosphorus is the main thing Alfalfa needs. It uses huge amounts of nitrogen but makes that with rain and soil microbes if you innoculated it at seeding.

Some areas are boron deficient, others copper. I think if $10 an acre will yield $15 worth of produce it may be worth it. The risk/ cash flow needs to be considered. I know that land around Olds is gold. The rains always come and risk of fertilizing is small, a return is almost 100% garanteed. That being said putting the right amount down is best.

Let the alfalfa flower for a time. 50% bloom still makes good feed for cows, I have cut at 90% bloom. Main thing is if the bottom leaves are falling off or not. If they are you are losing tons and quality.

Disease in a wetter clime is the biggest concern with an older stand. Proper boron/copper/zinc will help that.

What are custom rates up there? I had to upcharge to $15/ac to cut and $8 per bale for the little bit of custom that I do.
 

whiteface

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I don't have my bill sitting in front of me but I'm thinking I pay around $12-$15 and acre to cut, $3? maybe to flip it once and $10 a bale to bale it. The custom picker charges $2 a bale to pick it up off the field and put in my yard. Works out to a little less than $18-$20 a bale in baleing/stacking expense into each bale of course not takeing the cost of seed/seeding, fertilizer, machinery, land value, property taxes or anything else. Just what I pay the custom guy.
Olds is definatly a nice area which is why I moved here over 10 years ago. Of all the places I'd ever been, and there was quite a few, this one called to me the strongest and I set up camp. I don't know if you can actually grow enough here to justify land payments but if you just love to grow stuff and/or had the land given to you it may work out. Still I think even with something given to you, you have an obligation to not piss it away and make the most of it based on what it's actually worth.
The rain simply amazes me how it shows up here on time it seems every year in all 10 years I've been here and my heart does break for people suffering from drought in other areas all the time. Thanks for the compliment of the area Jason, but I didn't make Olds, just like most people, pay a fortune for the privilige to live here for a while. I like the proximity to major cities and still have the quiet and solitude of a large property with trees, ravines, open fields and peaceful cows grazing like they don't have a care in the world. Helps me escape from my own stresses.
I've been to Ft. Macleod lots. Used to have my cows "boarded" down there before I bought this place, got married and had kids and then fell off the face of the planet to everyone who was looking for me in the purebred circles. It's windy there for sure. But I love that you all irrigate, even though I seem to get enough rain, irrigation is more likely a sure thing so long your aquifers aren't going dry. I like that reliablility.
I'm interested in knowing more about your haveing some soil testing experience and that maybe you do this sort of thing personally. If I felt sincerely that a soil test/adding of nutrients would actually help I would consider it. Not to be condescending but I have run into too many "kids" out of college that tried to convince me that I needed lots of things and it turned out my gut instinct was more accurate just from asking a lot of questions from real people who'd been there done that in real life not just because a textbook, scholar and employer told them to.
Might just come chasing after you Jason, about a soil test.
Thanks a million!
Have a good day!
 

whiteface

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Thanks SH for an honest answer to a very real concern of mine, that doesn't involve a pile of numbers and reasoning! I'll leave you alone for awhile!
Have a good day all!
 

John in Ontario

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I am from Western Ontario about half way up the eastern shore of Lake Huron, about a mile from the water. We get some wild winters too. The general rule is that alfalfa needs 6 weeks of regrowth after cutting before killing frost. Also Phosphorus and Potasium fertilizer will help. A soil test is a good idea, but should be $30-40 for the basic test. Apply fertilizer as soon as possible after cutting. Around here alfalfa stands that make 6 years have pretty well had it and will be plowed, lots go down sooner, but lots of dairy, and with land at $3500 + per acre need production
 

Kato

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We're like your friend in Saskatchewan. Just get one cut. Especially the last few years. It has become so wet in June and early July that there is just no time for two cuts. We have one field that is cut first, let regrow all summer, and after it's good and frozen, we turn the cows out. They give it a real good workout, and in spring it comes back really well. Our neighbour put some liquid pig manure on it this spring, so we're looking forward to seeing how it turns out next year. I think it's a little early to see a response now.

We spread cattle manure on a bunch of alfalfa last fall, and we're optimistic about how that will turn out. We can already see a difference in the bales in the field from the parts that were manured and those that weren't. We were a little worried that the plants wouldn't come up through the straw, but that didn't seem to be a problem at all. If anything, the manure left a bit of mulch on the ground that seems to be holding moisture quite well. I think next year will tell the tale, because it takes some time for the manure to really break down so the nutrients are available to the plant.

We're not obsessed with the cut in early bloom idea. Maybe for dairy cows it's more important, but my hubby says he'd rather have "old green hay than young black rotten hay". :D
 

whiteface

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Thanks for the info Kato and sure nice to meet you John in Ontario. Raining like crazy here today. It won't go down for a week yet but I can just hear those little guys growing an extra inch out there with a timely drink. I sure hope for 6 weeks of re-growth before frost John, around here we just never know. Have had snow in August, I kid you not. Supposed to be 4 degrees tonight. I hope the manuare thing works out Kato. Let us know! Have a good night all!
 

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