First cutting is the most important and critical of the alfalfa growing season. A late start of this growing season will determine multiple things during this year’s production. It is important to know that the success of the entire production will be based in determining a proper date to cut for highest yield and quality. As rule of thumb, forage quality varies with the environment and cutting management. If you are forced to delay the first cutting due to environmental conditions (rain or even drought), keep in mind that this could have negative consequences with a slower regrowth and perhaps a reduction in future yield production.
First cutting tends to have low quality if it is cut late during the growing season. Generally, during pre-bloom or bud stage the stems are highly digestible with high quality forage. Second and third cuttings still very important for production, however if there is a need to wait to harvest beyond the bud stage then the more the quality would suffer because of lower proportion of leaf and stem ratio. Below are some guidelines in plant height and harvest maturity in alfalfa. Producers should take this into consideration for future management and cutting strategies.
Table 1. Plant height and harvest maturity in alfalfa.
|Cutting Schedule||Plant Height (inches)||Maturity Stage|
|First Cutting||32||Late vegetative to early bud|
|Second Cutting||23||Late bud to early flower|
|Third Cutting||19||Early to late flower|
|Fourth Cutting||16||Late flower|
Source: Professor Marisol Berti; North Dakota State University for Midwest Forage Association (Forage Focus; May 2018).
Each growing season brings new challenges. It is important to plan ahead and be ready to make the best decisions. Oftentimes, compromising forage quality to avoid plant stress is one way to harvest a little later than expected. It all varies depending on climate and other factors such as: stand health, age of the stand, history of winter injury and winter kill, previous cutting management, soil tests, insect and disease problems.