Alfalfa is a staple in the diets of most of our cattles nutrition in the winter/spring months across the nation due to its ideal contributions of crude protein and physically effective fiber in TMRs. Still, alfalfa remains one of the most difficult and challenging forages to harvest and store properly. Of the alfalfa haylage harvested, the majority is ensiled properly, which results in proper fermentation.
However, we still see about 10 percent that goes through clostridic fermentation due to decreased dry matter percentage at harvest. Numerous factors affect silage quality, including moisture, maturity and ash content.
As we approach alfalfa harvesting season, it’s important to walk fields to determine how the crop is progressing. Ultimately, harvest timing can be critical to achieving high-quality alfalfa that delivers optimal performance for our livestock.
The following checklist can help lead you to a successful harvest:
Weather: Unfortunately, weather is something we cannot control. However, weather can have a significant impact on forage quality.
Temperature: Forages are typically of higher quality when growing conditions are cooler. Increased temperatures can have several detrimental effects, including decreased stem diameter, accelerated rate of maturity, increased lignification, decreased digestibility, decreased plant height, decreased leaf:stem ratio and increased protein content.
Rain: Forecasted rainfall can be a challenge during haying. Make sure you’re fully prepared for first-cutting alfalfa so you can take advantage of a good weather window and avoid delays. Delaying harvest increases plant maturity, thus decreasing forage quality. Rainfall on cut alfalfa will decrease forage yield and quality through leaching, respiration and leaf loss.
Optimal maturity versus yield: Harvesting alfalfa at 28 inches or bud stage, whichever comes first, should result in very high-quality forage. If you delay harvest to achieve higher yield, you will sacrifice total quality and total digestible nutrients.
Cutting height: For pure alfalfa stands, cutting at 2.5 to 3 inches is advised. To prevent shortened stand life in mixed stands, this should be increased to 3 to 4 inches if the stand includes brome grass, orchard grass or timothy.
Drying time: Forage sugar content will decrease due to plant respiration in the field during wilting. Therefore, a rapid wilting process can improve the amount of forage sugar content. One way to decrease drying time is to cut alfalfa in wide swaths, thus increasing the surface area exposed to the sun. If the alfalfa is going to be ensiled, the additional sugar will aid in a more desirable fermentation process.
Optimal dry matter:
Haylage: 40–45 percent dry matter
Dry Hay: 82–88 percent dry matter
Balage: 45–55 percent dry matter
Minimize leaf loss: Rake or merge wide rows at a higher level of moisture to retain a higher leaf percentage on the leaf:stem ratio. Research has shown that disturbing drier windrows greatly reduces the leaf percentage of the post-harvest product, thus decreasing quality and yield.
Use a researched inoculant or preservative: The use of a high-quality inoculant will reduce silage pH, conserve sugars, reduce heating, reduce dry matter loss (shrink) and improve consistency and palatability of ensiled feeds. Hubbard Feeds offers both inoculant (Sil-All®) and preservative (Bulletproof®) options to meet your forage needs.
We carry a range of products and equipment to help with your alfalfa and other hay seasons! Give us a call or stop in the office! 406-488-1953 or Ben 406-480-2953