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Giving Your Alfalfa Stand the Winterizing Treatment

posted by Horse Owner Today    |   August 23, 2013 16:21

Alfalfa field March 21, 2014

Photo credit:  Bonnie Newton

Alfalfa field, one month after first cut.

If not properly managed, alfalfa can suffer winter injury or winterkill. Several factors play into good winter survival of your alfalfa stand.
Taking a Second Cut
For alfalfa, early fall is a critical time as plants are storing nutrients needed to survive the upcoming winter. Cutting plants during this period adds double the stress to the plants as they have to expend energy for regrowth as well as nutrient storage. During a minimum of six weeks after cutting, alfalfa plants need good growing conditions to ensure sufficient regrowth and energy storage to support winter survival. Plants harvested after August 15th may not have six weeks before a killing frost and may be susceptible to winter kill. A killing frost is considered minus five degrees Celsius or lower. Harvesting after a killing frost does
not affect food reserves but reduces the amount of stubble which helps trap snow. The trapped snow provides an important insulating blanked for alfalfa crowns.
Fertility
If alfalfa makes up 50% or more of the production in the stand and was properly inoculated at seeding, nitrogen is generally not a concern in the forage stand as the alfalfa will fix the nitrogen required by the stand. Phosphorus, potassium and sulphur are the three nutrients which should be considered in stands with large proportions of legumes. Phosphorus and potassium are particularly important as they support root and nodule health and over-wintering capability. Both of these nutrients can be fall applied as they are relatively immobile in the soil and will not leach or volatilize to the atmosphere like nitrogen. The most cost-effective way to maintain adequate soil fertility is to do a fall soil test.
Stand Health
An otherwise healthy stand can be impaired by insects and disease such as alfalfa weevils and downy mildew. Scouting for insects during June is important in noticing and minimizing insect feeding damage while disease resistant alfalfa varieties are your best defense against various root and leaf diseases.
Environmental Factors
Not all factors in alfalfa fall management are under your control. For example, wet soil conditions in the fall can reduce the plants ability to harden prior to winter. Lack of snow cover is also a concern as alfalfa crowns can be exposed to extreme cold. Snow cover can be improved by leaving sufficient stubble height.
Planting cold tolerant and disease resistant varieties along with a good fertility program and careful cutting management will help winterize your alfalfa stand for better longevity and productivity.
For more information on this or other topics please call me at the Watrous Ministry of Agriculture office (306) 946-3219, the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377 or visit our website http://www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca/

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Fall Feed Management