Mow, windrow and bale/chop without delay to maximize alfalfa yields and quality
Controlling traffic in farm fields requires striking the balance between equipment weight and tire pressure to minimize soil compaction and the resulting yield losses. In the hay meadow, though, timing of post-harvest field traffic is far more crucial.
Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension forage agronomist, has been studying the physical effects of hay-making tools on yields for several years. Based on results of trials in 2007/08 and again in 2014, he says farmers reap significantly higher yields when they can put up hay as soon as possible after mowing.
“Our earlier studies (conducted on research plots with laboratory harvesting equipment) showed the basic issue with field traffic after swathing was stem breakage,” Undersander notes.
“As soon as alfalfa is harvested, it starts to grow again. The longer a farmer allows that growth to continue before driving through the hay meadow with a baler or other equipment, the more the next cutting will suffer,” Undersander says.
“Ultimately, yield loss due to damaging ongoing plant growth is worse the longer you delay baling or chopping after mowing. Initially, we calculated losses to be about 6% per day of delay behind harvest,” he adds.
In 2014, Undersander and his associates conducted a similar trial but with commercial harvest equipment on three- to five-acre test plots. The experiments compared yield losses on four cuttings of alfalfa using a 10' pull-type mower versus a 13' mower.
Moving to the wider equipment and windrowing two swaths (26') of alfalfa into one row resulted in an increase of six-tenths of a ton per acre compared with the 10' mowers and 20' windrow spacing, Undersander explains.
“When you figure alfalfa at $200 per ton, that’s $120 per acre just through reduction of wheel traffic,” he adds.
Based on his research, Undersander advises producers to get hay off the field as quickly as possible, even if it means putting up wetter hay and using preservatives to protect quality.
“I like to remind growers the highest quality of their crop comes at the moment it is harvested. From then on, your goal has to be to minimize losses of both yield and quality as much as possible,” he explains. “That includes preserving the down hay and preventing damage to regrowing alfalfa stems, which emerge right behind the mower blade.”
To help juggle a timely harvest with timely baling or chopping, forage agronomist Dan Undersander suggests the following:
- Plant traffic-tolerant alfalfa varieties.
- In areas where soil compaction can be a problem, use the lightest equipment possible for raking and don’t leave the loader on the tractor when harvesting.
- Avoid unnecessary trips across the field.
- Mow and condition in a single operation.
- Follow the shortest route possible to drive loaded wagons or trucks off the field.
- If bales are dropped, collect them as soon as possible with the least amount of driving possible.
- Consider using wider harvesting equipment to reduce the percentage of the field covered with vehicle tracks and to allow hay and haylage to dry more quickly.
- Avoid the use of dual wheels in the field.
- Harvest as soon as possible after cutting.
- Use bale wraps and preservatives to harvest wetter hay.
- Make manure or fertilizer applications immediately after harvest.