Alfalfa and bermudagrass can beat the summer slump, but you need a good establishment plan for successful crops
Forage crop value is at an all time high as most of the United States has endured varying degrees of drought conditions this year. Two of the highest value forage crops grown in the Midwest are alfalfa and bermudagrass.
Both are very adept at producing good tonnage and high quality in the heat of the Midwest summer, making them highly desirable to help avoid the “summer slump” we see in livestock grazed exclusively on cool season grasses (especially fescue) during high summer. Alfalfa and bermudagrass are not inexpensive to plant and develop to a full and productive stand. Therefore it pays to do it right the first time.
Preparation should begin with field selection. Both alfalfa and bermudagrass prefer well-drained soil. That being said, bermudagrass will tolerate having “wet feet” somewhat better than alfalfa. It should also be noted that alfalfa tolerates winter considerably better than bermudagrass. South of a line crossing through Rolla, Mo., seems to be the point where bermudagrass experiences less winterkill and stand persistence is better.
Obtain a good soil sample (6-inch depth and 15 to 20 cores per 20 acres) well in advance of an anticipated establishment date. In some cases it may take a year to get the field ready for successful establishment. Soil pH should be 6.5 or higher for alfalfa and 6.0 or higher for bermudagrass. Keep in mind it takes six months for ag lime to really have an impact on soil pH. Phosphorous levels should be at least 50 pounds per acre for alfalfa and more than 40 pounds per acre for bermudagrass. Potassium levels should be a minimum of 220 pounds per acre for alfalfa and at least 180 pounds per acre for bermudagrass. If your soil is deficient in any of the above parameters contact your local MFA crop advisor for help in formulating a plan to amend the soil well ahead of planting.
If the drought didn’t kill your fescue (which is more likely just dormant), we suggest a spray/smother/spray program to eradicate weeds and grasses prior to planting. This would mean an application of glyphosate and AMS, followed by either a summer annual or winter annual crop to smother persistent grass (avoid Marshall or other annual ryegrasses if alfalfa planting is the goal; they mature too late), and a final application of glyphosate and AMS just prior to planting.
Proper seed selection is imperative as well. For bermudagrass the Laredo variety has shown very good winter survival and yields in the Midwest. Seeding at 15 pounds per acre is adequate. WL has a good selection of both conventional and Roundup Ready varieties of alfalfa that will persist and yield quality forage for you. I recommend the use of one of WL’s Roundup Ready varieties. In spite of the high initial cost of establishment, it will end up being the highest quality and cheapest alfalfa you grow. Weeds are the biggest threat to alfalfa stand life, and with good management Roundup Ready alfalfa is inexpensive to keep weed free. That boosts feed value. I am convinced that eradication of weeds in a good stand of alfalfa allows for a longer stand life, specifically if combined with good alfalfa management practices.
Choosing a method of planting should focus on planting into firm, moist, fertile soil—with good seed to soil contact. This needs to be accomplished without planting too deep (no deeper than 3/8 if an inch). I prefer worked ground over no-till, but either can be a success. Presence or absence of rocks can dictate which approach you will take. Feel free to call your local MFA to discuss planting options. Planting should be done in early spring or late summer/early fall. If you didn’t get started this fall, it’s a good time to get your soil tested now.
To get a good stand with these forages, your checklist isn’t long, but each step is important:
• Choose an appropriate field.
• Soil test and fix fertility issues well ahead of planting.
• Do a good job of eliminating competition (weeds).
• Don’t plant too deep.
• Pray for rain.
• Maintain fertility and vigorously attack weed pressure.
David Wolfe is an area sales manager for MFA Incorporated.