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Harvesting wet fields of alfalfa

July 8, 2014 | 0 comments


June 2014 has the dubious distinction of being the fifth wettest June in recorded history. Therefore, it's no surprise that July began with 11 percent of Wisconsin's first cutting of hay still standing in the fields.

"Clearly, we have significant problems in some places," Dr. Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension professor of agronomy, said during a World Class Webinar on forage being presented by Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.

The dilemma is alfalfa declines 4-5 points in relative forage quality per day, so the longer it sits in the field, the lower the quality. Those that got first cutting off can look to second cutting for heifer feed, while those coming into second cutting should be able to get it in pretty good shape. Those looking at first cutting will be getting some lower quality feed to deal with, Undersander observed.

One thing farmers might not be aware of is that the yield of next cutting will be reduced if alfalfa is left in the field. "We focus so much on the present that we don't realize the longer we leave the existing cutting in the field, the more we reduce our yield for the year and the next cutting," he said.

Take shoots into consideration

As a stand gets tall, shoots for the next cutting begin to grow. At the bud stage, the shoots are typically not visible enough for dairy farmers to notice at cutting.

However, as the plant moves into its flower stage, the growing shoots are clearly visible and can be up to 4 inches or more tall. "At this point, it is worthwhile to check your fields before cutting," Undersander said. "If you can cut above those shoots, then you have the stems left to continue growing and next cutting will come back in a timely manner."

If the crop is cut below the top of the shoots, the growing tips are severed. "Then you have not only taken off the cutting that is there, but you've cut off the regrowth for the next cutting and the plant has to start all over," he explained.

The plant will come back a little weaker and yields for the next cutting will be later and delayed. "So if you have to cut late, think about checking the stand and seeing if it would be beneficial to cut higher," Undersander advised.

Alfalfa regrowth needs to be taken into consideration because some varieties recover quicker than others. "Some of the varieties being grown can be 10 or 25 percent flower and you won't have to worry too much about those shoots in there," Undersander said.

With other varieties, the shoots will be 4-6 inches taller. Farmers must then decide whether they are going to cut off the growing tips or cut above them. For some late fields, that might mean cutting at six inches. "It's not desirable, but we're looking at what's the least of several bad situations that we could participate in," Undersander said.

Stick with wide swathes

Undersander has also been fielding lots of questions whether hay laid in wide swaths will dry well on soggy soils. "I would suggest to you that wide swathes are particularly important on these wet fields," he stressed.

If alfalfa is put into directly into windrows, it is definitely not going to dry very well, Undersander said. It is far better to spread out a wide swath on wet soil and at least have the surface of that swatch exposed to sunlight and drying. "If you immediately put it in windrows, only the surface of that windrow dries and, when you come back 24 hours later, that windrow will be as green inside as it was when you cut it," he pointed out.

Try to limit damage to the field

Harvesting when the soil is wet can really damage a field. "There are no good answers here. I saw a mower stuck in a field the other day; another where a caterpillar was pulling a truck out of a field," Undersander shared. "Imagine the damage that's doing."

While farmers might need to let one cutting get a little more mature to let the soil dry out, there are several options to consider when harvesting on wet soil.

It might be worthwhile to use wagons with flotation tires, instead of trucks. It will slow down the harvest tremendously, but it might save that field for next cutting. "When we're putting ruts several inches deep, we're virtually eliminating that field from future harvest," Undersander said.

Another option, when coming out of wet conditions, is to harvest older fields first and hold off on younger fields for a few days when there is the possibility they can dry a bit. If the older fields suffer damage, they are more in line to be torn up anyway.

Consider taking partial loads off. "None of these are things we'd like to do, but they might be worthwhile if we want to keep the field from being deeply rutted and torn up," Undersander said.

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