Good seedbed preparation and late summer management are among the biggest factors that determine a successful, high-yielding alfalfa crop, say experts at Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business.
Alfalfa is a long-term investment for growers and, to maximize productivity, there are several steps to take before seeding in the fall to ensure good stand establishment the next spring.
"Once growers have alfalfa established, it is a great crop for a long-term rotation," says Dan Berning, Pioneer technology services manager. "But growers want to get it right. They won't have another chance on that field for a while."
To thrive, alfalfa seeds require good seed-to-soil contact. Because of their size, the seeds should not be planted very deep, since that may cause emergence challenges. To ensure holding moisture, growers should plant in firm soil.
"In the ideal seedbed, a footprint doesn't leave more than a half-inch depression," Berning says. "This is firmer than soil needed for planting larger seed crops, but growers need to recognize alfalfa seed is very small."
"A firm seedbed helps prevent the biggest mistake in alfalfa planting - planting too deep," says Gary Brinkman, Pioneer area agronomist.
Other good seedbed management practices revolve around weed control.
"Alfalfa is a delicate seedling," Berning says, "so potential weed competition needs to be eliminated or it will inhibit the establishment of a good stand."
New technologies are now available from Pioneer to curb weed problems. This includes three Pioneer® brand alfalfa varieties with the Genuity® Roundup Ready® (RR) gene, part of Pioneer's extensive alfalfa lineup. The Roundup Ready trait enables growers to control grass and broadleaf weeds with a single glyphosate herbicide application, resulting in a simplified, cost-effective weed management program while maintaining crop and feed safety. Spraying Roundup® on the seedling crop is recommended at the three- to four-trifoliate leaf stage, and will aid with stand establishment by controlling most seedling weeds.
Selecting the right planting time also is important to good alfalfa establishment. Optimum planting times depend greatly on the region.
It is important to plant early enough to establish growth before fall dormancy, Berning says. "A rule of thumb is to plant no later than one month before the expected fall freeze, unless that won't provide adequate growth in your region."
Typically, growers should not harvest alfalfa before winter, but rather manage it. If growers cut their alfalfa crop in the fall, it depletes the root reserves of nutrients.