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Cutoff Dates for Last Alfalfa Cutting Nearly at Hand

Posted on Sep. 25th, 2012
Story by: Steve Watson
K-State Research & Extension News
MANHATTAN, Kan. – In some areas of Kansas, alfalfa growth resumed somewhat in September after a long period of drought and low production during the summer. This may create a dilemma for producers, said Jim Shroyer, K-State Research and Extension crop production specialist.

“Should you make the last cutting of the season now or wait until just before the first killing freeze is forecast to get as much productivity as possible? The timing of the last cutting can have a long-lasting impact on the productivity of the stand,” he said.

The agronomics of the question are clear, Shroyer said.

“At this stage of the growing season, alfalfa plants need to store enough carbohydrates to survive the winter. If root reserves are not replenished adequately before the first killing freeze (24 to 26 degrees F) in the fall, the stand is more susceptible to winter damage than it would be normally. That could result in slower greenup and early growth next spring,” he said.

The last cutting prior to fall dormancy should be timed so there are four to six weeks of growth time, or about 8 to 12 inches of foliage, before the average killing freeze date. This should allow adequate time for replenishment of root reserves, Shroyer said. For northern areas of the state, particularly northwest, late September should be the target date for the last cutting before dormancy, he said. The last week of September should be the cutoff date for southwest Kansas. The first week of October is the cutoff for southeast Kansas.

Making one last cutting in mid-October, if significant growth has occurred, could reduce root reserves during a critical time, the agronomist said.

“About the worst thing that could happen to an alfalfa stand that is cut in mid-October would be for the plants to regrow about 3 to 6 inches and then get a killing frost. In that scenario, the root carbohydrate reserves would be at a low point. That could hamper greenup next spring,” Shroyer said. After a killing freeze, the remaining forage (if any) can be hayed safely, he added. However, the producer should act quickly because the leaves will soon drop off. Late fall is also a great time of the year to soil sample alfalfa ground, Shroyer said.

“This timing allows for an accurate assessment of available soil nutrients and provides enough time to make nutrient management decisions before the crop starts growing in the spring. Soil tests of most interest include pH, phosphorus, and potassium, and to a lesser extent sulfur and boron,” he said. When sampling for immobile nutrients, sampling depth should be six inches, while mobile nutrients (sulfur) should be sampled to 24 inches.

K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.