The Economics of Delaying Alfalfa Harvest

Joel Johanningmeier
Ag Technology Manager
Alfalfa producers know that typically the first cut of the season is the highest-yielding and the last cut is the lowest. But by how much? We used the mapping capabilities in the R7® Tool along with the John Deere HarvestLab™ sensor to visualize and calculate the yield and quality coming out of the field. What we discovered could help you make more informed decisions about when and how often to harvest your alfalfa crop and whether a low-lignin variety might be right for you.
 
What we did 
We partnered with John Deere to use data from the HarvestLab, as well as in-season imagery from the R7 Tool, to average yields from eight alfalfa fields. The HarvestLab measures forage moisture, protein, starch, neutral detergent fiber (NDF), acid detergent fiber (ADF) and sugar.
 
On average, these fields generated 39 percent of total yield during the first cutting, 25.8 percent at the second cutting, 17.7 percent at the third cutting and 17.6 percent at the fourth cutting. (Tests were conducted in 2017 by WinField United in fields in southeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin.)
 
 

 
Understanding when your crop has the highest yield potential and knowing the variability of your fields can help you make better decisions — from when to make pest control and nutrient applications to determining harvest order. It can help you hone your alfalfa management, discover opportunities for improvement and manage your crop to a higher level.
 
Spreading out costs
To more economically harvest the same amount of yield with fewer resources, you could delay harvest intervals seven to 10 days and possibly go from a 4-cut to a 3-cut system (or a 5-cut to a 4-cut system in some areas), assuming the same harvest costs per acre. This would more equally distribute the total harvested yield and cost per harvested ton across all cuttings.
 
With conventional alfalfa varieties, you may end up getting more yield by delaying harvest, but sacrificing quality. The choice between attaining high yield or high forage quality is a decision many farmers struggle with. With low-lignin HarvXtra® Alfalfa with Roundup Ready® Technology, however, you have the potential to get both.
 
More opportune timing
With HarvXtra Alfalfa technology, forage quality potential is significantly higher than that of conventional alfalfa harvested at the same maturity. In fact, a seven- to 10-day delay in harvest can provide forage quality similar to conventional alfalfa harvested earlier, so you could get dairy-quality hay potential on a delayed harvest/high-yield system.
 
The recommended approach when moving to a 1-cut-less system is to harvest the first cut as usual, or with more flexibility, depending on spring weather. Subsequent cuttings can be harvested seven to 10 days later than normal to reach the yield or quality goals desired. This allows you to optimize the growing season and redistribute harvestable tonnage across all cuttings. You and your agronomist can also use the R7 Field Monitoring Tool to track vigor status and determine a cutting schedule for the season by optimizing the yield and quality of the first cut.
 

 
Talk with your trusted advisor about appropriate management practices for your alfalfa or to find out more about the benefits of planting CROPLAN HarvXtra Alfalfa.
 
© 2018 WinField United. R7® is a trademark of WinField United. HarvXtra® is a trademark of Forage Genetics International. HarvestLab™ is a trademark of Deere & Company.
Tags: alfalfa
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