Harvesting High Quality Alfalfa
It’s that time of year again when the alfalfa has awakened from its winter slumber and is quickly approaching 1st crop harvest. Are you and your harvest team ready? The first step to making any harvest successful is having a clear plan outlined for your team and defined roles for each team member. The plan should include a few different iterations so if plan A does not come to fruition, then you’re not scrambling to figure out what should be done alternatively. I think you probably already know where I am going with this. Mother nature is the ultimate deciding factor on how we can execute our plan because we can’t be harvesting hay when it’s raining; we need a good 3–4-day window of favorable weather.
Who on the team is going to be scouting the fields to determine the best stage of maturity for harvest? Stage of maturity is so critical to ensure the highest quality feed is harvested. This will have a substantial impact on ration cost when you consider if you are left to feed 140 RFQ haylage or hopefully you can nail some 180 RFQ haylage and keep cow performance and control ration costs. For conventional alfalfa, PEAQ stick system works quite well on first cutting to help estimate when to cut. Low-lignin alfalfa is different to estimate and needs to rely more on scissor cut samples and visual assessment. Visual assessment is looking at plant height and bud characteristics – no visible bud, 1 or more nodules with visible bud and flower stage. Using a PEAQ stick example, we could expect high quality feed at 24 inches and 1 or more nodules with a bud about the size of a BB.
You made the decision to cut, so now who is going to lead the harvesting efforts? Here we want to be sure to start chopping at the proper dry matter. For alfalfa, we would like to be 38-45%DM for bunkers. Sample regularly for dry matter checks and save 3-6 samples to send to the lab for nutrient analysis so you know what you got before you ever go to open it. Next is chop length: we want to see 25-30% of the alfalfa haylage on the top screen of the Penn State Shaker box. This means you will have 20%+ of particles that are 1.5” in length or longer. This usually equates to .75” TLOC setting on the chopper itself, but every chopper is different so be sure to keep a close eye on this. If particles become too long and shaggy, then it will not pack well. Pack, pack, pack and pack!!! In a bunker or pile we want to achieve 18 lbs.+ of dry matter per cubic foot. We can do this by matching packing tractor capacity and number of tractors with the tonnage of silage being delivered in. The general rule of thumb is tractor weight divided by 800 equals wet tons per hour.
You did it, you put-up high-quality feed and mother nature cooperated so who is going to lead the charge on covering it with plastic? Most ideally, you want to cover the silage as soon as you are done packing it. Make sure the top surface is relatively smooth, so the plastic adheres to the silage, minimizing any potential air pockets. Air pockets equal mold, so they need to be avoided at all costs! Lastly, make sure the tire crew is wearing flat shoes, so they do not weaken or puncture the plastic while walking on top of it.
There is a lot that goes into a successful harvest but with a good plan and team effort you don’t need to let it get the best of you. There will be stress, but always remember the plan and trust the people on your harvest team. And if things don’t go your way with one crop, you have three more to go so don’t lose sight on your goals! I understand that some people may not harvest any alfalfa and harvest grass silage varieties. No need to worry, we at GPS Dairy Consulting have a helpful harvest guide for grasses too that we can help you build a plan around successful grass silage harvesting. Have a successful and safe harvest!