In the Midwest, three-cut systems typically produce greater gross returns per acre even after adjusting for harvest costs.
Alfalfa’s value is energy, not protein
For years, most dairy producers have looked at alfalfa as a cheaper source of protein than soybean meal, with some energy and ruminal benefits thrown in. But $7 corn—or whatever it will be this year—changes all that, says Bill Weiss, an Extension dairy specialist with The Ohio State University (OSU).
The 10-year average for energy value is about 5¢ per megacalorie (Mcal). Today, with ethanol, exports and drought, that value is three to four times higher.
Even with $5 corn, the value of average hay priced at $245 per ton breaks down this way: energy, $177; protein, $61; neutral detergent fiber (NDF), $7. "The value of alfalfa is energy, not protein," Weiss says.
Keep in mind that plant proteins metabolize differently in the rumen. While soybean protein is 70% metabolizable and distillers’ grain protein is 65% metabolizable, alfalfa comes in at about 55%.
This new way of thinking about alfalfa has implications for cutting management. Because younger-cut alfalfa is higher quality, it is often thought that a four-cut system yields more value per acre per year than a three-cut system. But when you cut more frequently, you sacrifice yield and, potentially, stand life. You also increase weather risk.
Dianne Shoemaker, an Extension field specialist at OSU, compared three- and four-cut production records dating back to 2005. She found that the three-cut system produced greater gross returns per acre even after adjusting for harvest costs. The four-cut system produced better quality, but the three-cut system produced greater tonnage—and more dollars.
"While we would like to make 100% of the four-cutting hay at the optimum time, even in a well-managed system, weather will interfere," she says.
The comparison used the average of 11 alfalfa varieties harvested at a Wooster, Ohio, test plot in 2011. Four-cut alfalfa averaged 5.84 tons per acre of dry matter and was 60% good quality (40% NDF) and 40% fair quality (44% NDF). Shoemaker assumed three-cut alfalfa would yield 6.7 tons per acre (15% more) but be only fair quality.
"The three-cut system averages $50 per year more in gross returns per acre less harvest costs, even though 60% of the four-cut was of higher quality and value," she says.
In a few of the past eight years, four-cut alfalfa put up at 40% NDF would have had an economic advantage. "Only if the four-cut haylage is harvested as a mix of good and premium quality does the system begin to show some advantage over three cuttings with higher yields harvested at 44% NDF," Shoemaker says.
The bottom line: "Under normal harvest conditions, a three-cutting system harvesting 15% to 20% more dry matter of good quality alfalfa hay or haylage nearly always generated more gross returns per acre, even when adjusted for harvest costs and potential milk production," Shoemaker says.
- December 2012