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Alfalfa Yield is the Elephant in the Room

University of Minnesota Extension, Stearns County News
February 12, 2014         
Source:  Dan Martens, Extension Educator
University of Minnesota Extension
Stearns, Benton & Morrison Counties

Alfalfa Yield is the Elephant in the Room
By Dan Martens, University of Minnesota Extension

FOLEY, Minn. (02/06/14) — Talking at the central Minnesota forage crop workshop, Penn State Forage Specialist Marvin Hall explained that yield and quality are both important when growing alfalfa and other forage crops.  But when it comes to alfalfa, we probably have a better handle on what we know about quality than with what we know about yield.

Hall suggested getting a better handle on real yield numbers is important for making crop and farm management decisions; and will probably become even more important as government programs put even more emphasis on crop insurance as a way to manage weather and market risk on farms. Hall showed data that indicates many farmers respond to National Ag Statistics Service Surveys by saying alfalfa yields run 3-4 tons per acre or less – maybe like we have thought about for a lot of years. Work being done through central Wisconsin to weigh and test moisture on whole fields through the growing season shows a lot of yields more in the range of 5-6 tons per acre with some higher than that.

It’s easier to measure yields for grain crops with one harvest, and the crop going in a bin that can be measured or going across a market scale. Farmers keep track of grain yields to establish production histories that are used as a basis for farm program payments on crop insurance levels. Government payments will be less significant with the new farm bill, but maintaining accurate yield records will continue to be important with crop insurance tools.

The Midwest Forage Association continues discussions with farmers and Risk Management Agency staff about ways to make crop insurance a more useful risk management tool for alfalfa and other hay crops.

Hall’s discussion about keys to better alfalfa yields included:

  • Proper seeding depth for good stands. He talked about aiming for ¼ inch as ideal, maybe up to a half inch on sand. Your experience on your particular soils is important. Hall said with a quarter inch planting depth target, you should expect to find 10% of the seed on the surface.
  • Good Soil Seed Contact. The key to this is to get a firm seedbed prior to seeding. Walking on the field, your heel should not leave more than a half inch depression.
  • Proper soil fertility should be based on soil test and research based recommendations.
  • Proper cutting height. Alfalfa can be cut short, but with aggressive disc cutters, be careful about getting a lot of soil pick up or blown up into the hay crop. He referenced some hay test sample showing as much as 19% ash content, which really means a lot of soil is being picked up.
  • Minimize wheel traffic wheel traffic has to do with not making a lot of extra tracks in fields. It means getting the crop off the field as soon as you can so you are not crushing new shoots. We tend to get better yields when most of the hay is harvested as haylage. This generally allows getting the crop off the field sooner.
  • Shorter stand rotations. Yield declines about 0.2 tons per year because of the wear and tear on alfalfa fields over time. One calculation shows net income per acre across 3 harvest years at $124 per acre and across 4 years at $98 per acre. Net dollars depends on markets value, but the numbers here represent yield loss over time.
  • Minimize harvest and storage loss. The goal is to harvest at the correct moisture content and to follow effective storage and feeding practices. Net wrapping bales that are stored outside significantly reduces spoilage loss. Three inches or less of spoilage damage around the outside of a large round bale can easily be 10% or more of the bale. Plastic covers or indoor store would be preferred for other bales.


Daniel Martens
Extension Educator, Ag Production Systems
(320) 968-5077
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