Managing alfalfa in the winter

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By Rick Greenwell

Given the increased alfalfa lately both for hay and grazing, I thought you may be interested in this information for UK for managing alfalfa at this time of year.

Alfalfa is arguably the most important forage legume in the US, with Kentucky having about 350,000 acres of alfalfa. Alfalfa is high in protein and has the highest yield potential and feeding value of all perennial forage legumes. These qualities lend to its versatility and allow it to be used for grazing, or preserved as hay, silage, or green-chop.

Managing alfalfa is important to increase the odds for a successful stand and regrowth each season. With fall approaching, established alfalfa needs to be given a rest period to ensure survival through the winter. The goal is for alfalfa to enter winter dormancy with plenty of root reserves.

To accomplish this goal, livestock should be moved off alfalfa pastures by Sept. 15 and not returned for grazing again until after a killing frost (below 24o F). If grazing occurs after a light frost, root reserves mobilized to support new growth may not have time to be replenished. This will reduce the rate of regrowth and yield the following spring. The same concept applies when harvesting alfalfa for hay rather than grazing. Make the last summer cutting before September 15th and do not harvest again until after a killing frost.

It’s important to have alternative forages available to feed while alfalfa pastures rest in the fall. Feasible options during this time include cool-season pasture grasses or other forage crops such as turnips and small grains. Plan ahead for future plantings to ensure forage is available for grazing.

In addition to the fall rest period, consider the following recommendations for fall management of alfalfa:

If field conditions become muddy, remove animals before Sept. 15 to prevent damage to the stand from trampling.

Use rotational grazing practices to maintain thick, productive stands.

Keep stocking rates at levels that allow removal of herbage in 7-10 days or less.

To reduce the chances of bloat, incorporate cool-season grasses in alfalfa pastures and do not turn out hungry animals on alfalfa pastures.

For more information on managing alfalfa, the following publications may be useful: Alfalfa: The Queen of Forage Crops, located at http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/agr/agr76/agr76.pdf and Grazing Alfalfa, http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/id/id97/id97.pdf