Farmers share tips for establishing no-till alfalfa

Amber Raddatz

Alfalfa is a staple as part of the forage-based diet for Wisconsin’s livestock herds. During establishment, it is also one of the parts of the crop rotation that can be most vulnerable to soil losses and erosion.

First year alfalfa established into rye .

Discovery Farms data show that more than 70% of annual soil losses happen in April, May and June. For spring planted alfalfa, soil is bare and disturbed during these months which creates issues for soil and water quality.

In addition, the gullies and rills created by erosion can also cause headaches that last the entire life of the alfalfa crop. Crop loss, damage to equipment or even hazardous equipment operation conditions are avoidable when small tweaks are made to enable no-till alfalfa establishment.

A quick Google search will give you a range of suggestions from across the country on how and when to establish alfalfa without tilling the soil first. Here are some Wisconsin-specific suggestions from farmers making it work here.

1. Plan to establish alfalfa after corn silage. This reduces the amount of stalk residue remaining in the field. It also allows for planting a fall cover crop that can serve as the nurse crop in the spring.

2. Establish a hardy cover in the fall immediately after corn silage harvest. Wisconsin farmers have seen good success with rye, as it gets enough ground cover going in the fall, yet still can be harvested with summer alfalfa cuttings. Cover can be established through drilling or broadcasting. If broadcasting, use an increased seeding rate (but not too heavy), aiming for 1.5-2 bu/acre.

3. Use a no-till drill to plant alfalfa directly into growing rye or cover crop in the spring. Seed alfalfa into the growing rye as quickly as you can, as soon as the ground is fit. Good soil conditions for temperature and moisture are more key than equipment or seeding modifications. Often this equates to approximately mid-April. Seeding into the growing crop this way makes the rye look like you just went through it with a lawnmower, but experience says it rebounds quickly. When rye starts to reach stages of early heading, it is too late to seed alfalfa into it.

4. Rye can be harvested as a forage for lower quality feed and segregated or blended with other cuttings of alfalfa during the establishment year, including first crop. There will be some regrowth of the rye after the first cutting and through the summer, but not enough to over-compete with alfalfa while establishing.

University of Wisconsin-Extension

Benefits of no till alfalfa establishment with a cover crop

1. For the farmers giving this a try, their first priority really was soil cover during the spring months. They wanted to minimize disturbance, decrease brown-ground time, and save soil in the process. This accomplishes those goals and also makes a good environment for alfalfa to establish itself, and creates a bit of forage to harvest in the meantime too.

2. This enables you to turn a cover crop into a part of the system and a producing crop, which is a win-win.

3. Because of early season soil cover and early clipping (with first crop alfalfa), farmers felt that weed competition was either the same as or less than traditionally seeded alfalfa crops.

Considerations for trying no till alfalfa establishment with a cover crop

1. Continue to be vigilant about scouting for insects and consider spraying the field after cutting it. Insects seem to love new seeding and staying ahead of them leaves you with more successful results.

2. If you want to try this, do a small trial, not your whole farm. If it is successful, add a few more acres next year. Start small and make adaptations necessary for your farm. Try to connect with people who have tried it and pick their brain for tips and tricks.

3. Try to avoid planting alfalfa in wet spots or on spots that stay cooler and get frequent shading. In those areas, consider using a clover mix or something that tolerates a wetter, cooler, shadier setting. Save alfalfa for the sunny, open fields for the best chances for success.

If you’re interested and would like more specifics or to get in touch with farmers who have tried this, give us a call at 715-983-5668 or email and we can connect you to a fellow farmer near you!

Raddatz is Co-Director of the UW Discovery Farms Program

Discovery Farms Wisconsin