Glen Shewmaker

Glen Shewmaker

Like many things in agriculture, to produce top-quality alfalfa, timing is everything.

“Forage quality is a declining function,” said Glen Shewmaker, forage specialist at the University of Idaho, at Alfalfa U in Twin Falls, Idaho. In other words, manage perfectly and you’ll end up with top-quality alfalfa every time. But poor timing at every step along the way really messes up the end product.

1. Begin with planting. Top quality starts with seedbed preparation and planting. The bed should be firm, level and weed-free. Use a press wheel drill, or Brillion-type seeder to plant, and buy high-quality seed. “I’ve seen 6 pounds or 30 pounds succeed or fail, depending on soil conditions,” he said.

2. Cut the right way. Timing is everything when cutting alfalfa, and one of the few things producers have control over. The sweet spot is to cut right at the bud stage, Shewmaker said. “You can’t go back in time, so monitor your fields and determine which field should be cut first.” If money was no object, he prefers a disc mower over sickle-types. “You can cut almost twice as fast and a few hours earlier if the hay is damp,” he said. “But disc mowers cost more and require more power.”

3. Rake and cure timing. Shewmaker warns producers may not be running rakes properly. Rake teeth need to run high enough to avoid bringing dirt into the windrow. In theory, hay rake teeth should not touch the ground. “I’ve seen teeth covered with mud, and there is no reason for that,” he said.

Ideally, producers have raked alfalfa windrows together when the hay is at 40 percent moisture. There isn’t a trick to getting it to dry; weather and environment is out of our hands. “But we need to monitor the hay,” he said. “The more mature the alfalfa was at cutting, the stiffer the windrow. It doesn’t mat down as badly and will dry more efficiently.”

4. Storage sense. Shewmaker pointed out that alfalfa quality is lost for each day of storage in the field. “Forage quality declines with time. We can’t improve it; we can only limit the decline,” he said. If you’re selling hay and sample it for quality, take 12 to 20 cores per stack, per lot of hay. Pull core samples from the side, or the end of the butt part of the stack. Be systematic and consistent, he said.

5. Preservative or not? Shewmaker cited research showing a 5 percent reduction in dry matter after six months in hay baled from 11 to 20 percent moisture. Yet, ADF increased from 2.7 to 5.3 percent. A preservative would help reduce shrink in the stack, he said. “If I was a custom operator I would have a steamer, and an additive applicator, and make sure to bale before it rains,” Shewmaker said.

Bill Spiegel can be reached at

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