Evaluating Alfalfa Stands in the Spring

Richard Taylor, Extension Agronomist; rtaylor@udel.edu

This season I’ve already had a couple of questions asked as to when and how to evaluate alfalfa stands. Below are descriptions of two methods that can be used to determine the viability of an alfalfa stand. An alfalfa producer should use not only one of these methods but their feel for the vigor of the particular stand they wish to evaluate, as well as the production history of that field.

The first method consists of counting the number of plants per square foot. Current research information suggests that when stand counts fall below 3 to 5 plants per square foot, it’s time to either rotate out of pure alfalfa or interseed a grass crop such as orchardgrass, festulolium, tetraploid ryegrass, or annual ryegrass or interseed another legume not hurt by the autotoxicity seen in year old or older alfalfa stands. Red clover is the legume of choice and should be planted at 6 to 8 lbs pure live seed per A either by broadcasting it on in very early spring or seeding it with a no-till drill (plant either in very early spring or in early to mid-Sept after the last harvest of the season).

The second evaluation method derives from research out of Wisconsin by Dr. Dennis Cosgrove that indicates that stem number, rather than plant number, is a more accurate determination of when to plow down or interseed an alfalfa stand. Cosgrove suggests using a value of 55 or more stems per square foot to indicate that the stand will produce maximum yield. A reduction in stem number per square foot to 40 stems or less will result in a 25 percent yield reduction. At this critical level, alfalfa fields begin to lose profitability and should be rotated to another crop for one or two years.

Although you can get some idea on the potential of your alfalfa stand by counting either the number of plants or the number of tillers per square foot, you will need also to consider checking on the health of those plants to have an accurate basis for a decision on keeping or destroying an alfalfa stand. To do this, in the spring when new growth is about 4 to 6 inches tall, check a random one square foot site for each 5 to 10 As of alfalfa or at least 4 to 5 sites on small fields. Dig up several plants at each site and slice open the crown and root (longitudinally) with a sharp knife to determine the health of the crown and tap root. Healthy roots and crowns will be firm and white to slightly yellow in color. Diseased roots will have dark brown areas extending down the center, especially if crown rot is a problem. Reduce your counts of plants per square foot or tillers per square foot so only the healthy plants present are counted. Plants with roots that are mushy or soft are likely to die; and although those with a few brown spots may survive, the overall vigor of the stand will be compromised by the presence of disease.

If you must decide on whether to reseed before growth begins in the spring (and you do not plan to take a first harvest of alfalfa before planting another crop) or after a very hard winter with significant heaving or winter injury, base your decision to reseed on the number of plants per square foot (Table 1). If a decision to reseed can be made during the growing season or after about 4 to 6 inches of growth has occurred in the spring, either evaluation method can be used (Table 1). In Table 1 below, I’ve modified various estimates for good, marginal, and poor stands to give the grower possible guidelines to consider in making a decision on keeping the stand or interseeding a grass or other legume.

Table 1. Suggested plants per square foot or tillers per square foot (#) criteria for evaluating alfalfa stands on Delmarva.

Age of stand

Good stand Marginal stand Consider replacement1 or renovation2 with interseeded grass or red clover
Plants per square foot with spring tillers per square foot in parentheses
New 25-40 plts (> 75) 15-25 plts (< 55) < 15 plts (< 50)
1 year old > 12 plts (> 60) 8-12 plts (< 55) < 8 plts (< 45)
2 years old > 8 plts (> 55) 5-7 plts (< 50) < 5 plts (< 40)
3 years old > 6 plts (> 50) 4-6 plts (< 45) < 4 plts (< 40)
4 years old or older > 4 plts (> 50) 3-4 plts (< 40) < 3 plts (< 40)

1 If the stand is to be plowed for replacement, growers often find it economically favorable to take a first cutting and then plow and plant a rotational crop that can use the nitrogen mineralized from the decomposing alfalfa plants. Rotate out of alfalfa at least until the next fall (14 to 18 months) but preferably for 2 to 4 years. This will allow time for a reduction in the potential for alfalfa diseases and provide the grower the opportunity to correct soil nutrient and pH (acidity) problems as well as make use of the residual N mineralization potential that exists in a field following an alfalfa crop.

2 If you consider renovation or extending the stand life, try no-tilling a grass crop such as orchardgrass, tetraplpoid annual or perennial ryegrass, or one of the new varieties of festulolium (a cross between meadow fescue and one of the ryegrasses). The grass will increase your tonnage especially if you fertilize for the grass with nitrogen fertilizer. This also has the effect of driving out alfalfa at the same time as production levels are maintained for an additional year or two. Another option for extending an alfalfa stand’s life for 1 to 2 years is to seed in 6 to 8 lbs of red clover per A. This option will maintain the higher protein production from the field.

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