Forage quality starts with the planning process, not the finished product: Field selections

Paying attention to detail when selecting a field is important for long-term success.

Rolling seedbeds is a way forage producers can reduce ridges and provide a smooth seedbed.
Rolling seedbeds is a way forage producers can reduce ridges and provide a smooth seedbed.

When top producers talk about being successful, one of the first comments to come up is that they take the time to pay attention to detail. This one thing is what separates them from the pack and allows them opportunities for higher yield and usually higher income. For the forage producer, this translates into better forage yield and quality.

In Michigan, alfalfa and corn silage represent a large percentage of the forages grown in the state. According to the Great Lakes Regional Office of National Agricultural Statistics Services, in 2013 alfalfa had 610,000 acres harvested and corn silage had 340,000 acres harvested. To achieve high yielding forages, paying attention to the planning process prior to stand establishment will pay big dividends for long-term success. The key planning areas that producers should concentrate on are field selection and preparation, variety selection, and planting considerations. In this article, I’ll concentrate on alfalfa production in the first area, field selection and preparation.

Michigan State University Extension recommends that alfalfa should be grown in well-drained soils to achieve the best production. The sites should have good sub-surface and above-ground drainage to reduce the potential for root diseases, ponding and ice damage during winter conditions. Once a field is selected, producers should obtain a current soil test to determine soil fertility levels. Soil tests are recommended at least every three or four years. The MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory offers a variety of analytical services on soil samples. The most important soil fertility components for alfalfa are soil pH (liming), phosphorus and potassium, followed by boron and sulfur. Sampling soils at least six months prior to the planned seeding date leaves plenty of time for planning before the next field season.

Fertilizer rates should be applied according to soil test recommendations. For best effectiveness, lime should be applied to a pH of 6.8 at least six to 12 months in advance of a new alfalfa planting because it works very slowly to correct soil acidity. A single application of lime should not exceed 4 tons per acre; if more is needed, a split application should be made. Even without a six-month window before planting time, it is still better to apply lime before planting rather than after planting.

In general, the major benefits of weed control in new alfalfa seedings are improved forage quality in the first harvest and insurance against stand loss from intense weed competition. These benefits are achieved by controlling weeds in the first 60 days after establishment when new alfalfa seedlings are small, slower growing and unable to compete. The best time to control perennial weeds and possible seed production that may eventually compete against seedlings and reduce plant stands is the growing season prior to planting alfalfa. If weeds are a problem in the spring prior to planting, conventional tillage can provide control during final seedbed preparation.

An application of glyphosate or paraquat can be used as a burndown for weed control in no-till situations. Timing and rate of application are very important with chemical weed control. Spraying at the wrong time often results in poor weed control and crop injury. Follow label directions concerning proper rate, timing and placement of the herbicide based on weed species and size. For a more complete guide to herbicide applications for forages, go to the 2014 MSU Weed Control Guide for Field Crops, MSU Extension Bulletin E0434.

Excellent alfalfa stands have been established with a clear seeding in the spring or summer, or by seeding with a companion crop in the spring. Each method needs to have a smooth, firm, clod-free seedbed for best results. The rule of thumb is that the heel of your boot should not leave an indentation of more than 0.5 inches after the last pass in seedbed preparation. Rolling of the seedbed is one way producers have reduced ridges and provided a smooth seedbed (see photo).

The recommended time for seeding alfalfa in Michigan is the spring. Better growing conditions, a longer season, adequate soil moisture and cooler temperatures enhance seed germination and establishment. The dates to seed alfalfa will depend on the location of your farm. For northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, May 1-30 is the average seeding dates. For southern Michigan, April 15-May 15 are the average seeding dates. Sandy soil may be planted earlier if conditions permit. If summer alfalfa establishment is considered, the average dates for northern Lower Michigan are July 20-Aug. 1 and the average dates for southern Michigan are Aug. 1-15. After these times, the likelihood of success will diminish.

Any producer should pay attention to the details and plan ahead for success. For more information on successful field preparation for alfalfa, contact Phil Kaatz at or 810-667-0341.

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