Planning for forage success this spring

Review these tips and develop a plan for the best results with forage this year.

Successful forage establishment or harvest is usually a result of thoughtful planning prior to the spring. Taking the time to put a plan together will pay dividends to the novice as well as the experienced forage producer. A few points in these categories should be considered every year prior to spring: forage goals, soil fertility, harvest management, and emergency considerations.

Forage goals

Consider what kind of animals you have before spending valuable resources on tillage, seed and or fertilizer. Horses, cattle, sheep or dairy animals all have differing needs for forage quality. Consider if you want to plant a pure stand of alfalfa, a legume (clover or alfalfa) and grass mix, or a solid grass stand.

Another point to consider if using grass is to realize that a legume provides a symbiotic relationship that helps both the grass and legume to be more productive. MSU recommendations always encourage the use of improved varieties for both legumes and grass.

Know your production needs. Calculate how many pounds of forage you will need for your livestock. Assess if you will be rotating specific fields out of production and realize there may be fields that have winter kill or heaving decreasing your overall yield.

Soil fertility

A soil test is always a good start for assessing the nutrient needs of a forage crop. One common mistake by producers is to get a soil test and forget to let the lab know the sample is for a new seeding or an established stand.

One important consideration for any new alfalfa seeding is pH of the soils. A soil pH of 6.8 is recommended for mineral soils and a pH of 6.0 for organic soils. Based on your soils, the lime type and rates will vary. Plan on applying lime to your fields six months prior to planting a new alfalfa seeding.

Growers should consider the amount of fertilizer to apply to their fields based on: 1) the current soil fertility and, 2) the amount of crop removal. If you are not adding fertilizer to your fields, each and every bale will decrease the nutrients in your field. The following chart can be used for crop removal.

Nutrient removal in harvested portions for Michigan forage crops

(Warncke, D. et al, Nutrient Recommendations for Field Crops in Michigan, Extension Bulletin E-2904)

Nutrient Recommendations for Field Crops in Michigan.
Yields are based on the following moisture contents: hay ~ 18%; corn silage 66%; haylage 65%. 

Harvest management

Plan on the storage needs you will need if you have a wet or dry season. Usually the wetter the season, the higher the yields you will have. When you consider baling hay, will you have small square bales that are more labor intensive or will you use round bales, large square bales or a combination of all of these? Will you be storing large round bales under cover? Large round bales can have losses up to 30 percent of the total bale in the outer 6 inches. So storing bales under cover is recommended for all types. Harvest moistures should be less than 20 percent for small square bales, 18 percent for round bales and 16 percent for large square bales.

Take time during the winter to make sure your equipment is ready to harvest. Delaying alfalfa cutting due to machinery malfunction will reduce the quality of the hay or haylage. The following chart indicates quality changes due to delayed cutting. A few hot days can change the maturity of your alfalfa stands quickly.

Expected forage quality values as alfalfa matures

Expected forage quality values as alfalfa matures.

Emergency situations

Most experienced forage producers can remember a time when the weather was too hot and dry to get a good forage crop. If you have livestock, scrambling for hay following a hot, dry summer can be both expensive and time consuming. Consider having an alternative annual forage plan if the weather doesn’t allow for normal harvest yields.

Another potential challenge to consider involves the loss of your current alfalfa stands due to winter injury or heaving. If this happens, the time spent doing some early scouting and identifying problem fields pays dividends because of early planning and securing the best seed variety available for your cropping system.