Planting methods for successful alfalfa establishment

Establishing good stands of alfalfa can be done by proper site selection, seeding rate, weed control and planting method.

Alfalfa is one of the major forage crops in dairy and livestock production as well as an expensive crop to establish. Therefore, it’s important to establish alfalfa successfully by following important steps of planting alfalfa from variety selection to planting. Following are the factors to consider in alfalfa planting.

Site selection. Alfalfa does well on well-drained soil rather than wet, heavy clay soils and requires good soil pH ranging from 6.5 to 7.0. If your soil pH is lower than 6.5, symbiotic nitrogen fixation may not function properly. Thus, liming will be required to raise low soil pH to its optimum level and make better nutrient uptake. Each harvested dry matter ton of alfalfa removes approximately 11 pounds of P2O5 and 53 pounds of K2O. Follow soil test recommendations from the Michigan State University Soil Testing Lab after your soil is analyzed.

Seeding rate. For pure alfalfa stands, 18 to 20 pounds per acre should be planted. For mixed stands with grass, 15 to 16 pounds per acre is recommended. For broadcast seeding, seeding rates need to be increased by 10 to 20 percent.

Weed control. For spring seeding, weed control is essential to prevent seeding failure from severe weed pressure. For conventional planting, pre-emergence herbicide, such as Eptam or Chateau, can be incorporated into the soil before planting alfalfa. On no-till planting, only post-emergence herbicides, such as Raptor, Pursuit, or Select can be used.

Conventional planting. Conventional tillage is a more desirable planting method for flat and uniform fields than no-till planting, which is for rocky or steep slopes. Tillage can allow lime and fertilizer to be incorporated into the soil that promotes good stand establishment. Having firm seedbed is essential to good seed-soil contact, and as a rule of thumb, an adult’s foot hill should be about 1/4” to 1/2" deep. Either cultipacker type seeder or a grain drill can be used for a conventional tillage for planting alfalfa.

No-till planting. In general, no-till costs less than a conventional tillage in terms of time, fuel and power requirements. Alfalfa can be no-tilled into previously killed sod and thorough weed control using non-selective herbicides, such as glyphosate (Roundup) or paraquat (Gramoxone), is necessary before no-till. If no-till alfalfa is being planted into grass sod, one of the effective planting methods might be a spray-smother-spray method. First, spray the growing grass sod with a non-selective herbicide. Second, no-till plant an annual forage crop, such as winter wheat or rye, to smother regrowth of any grass sod or break-hard sod. Third, harvest winter annual forage crops. Fourth, spray herbicide before planting alfalfa.

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