Determining the optimum time to take the first cut of alfalfa is as simple as subscribing to an email, thanks to the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association’s (MFGA) Green Gold Program.
Starting in mid-May, 15 to 20 alfalfa fields across Manitoba will be sampled twice a week and the relative feed value (RFV) calculated by Central Testing Laboratory in Winnipeg. The results will be posted on the MFGA’s website and distributed through the Manitoba Co-operator’s Daily News — an email sent directly to Daily News subscribers.
Farmers can also email John McGregor, the MFGA’s extension support person, and ask to be added to the Green Gold Program mailing list.
Results will be published as well in the Carillon News and broadcast on Radio Southern Manitoba.
“Since people will be getting this information as the alfalfa is progressing, it gives them a heads up as to when their alfalfa might reach the stage they want to harvest it at,” McGregor said in an interview May 1.
Farmers can look at the results from the area nearest to them as well as the regional average. Samples will be taken from the eastern, central and western areas of Manitoba.
When deciding on the right time to cut alfalfa, there are several considerations, including feed value and yield. Allowing alfalfa to grow longer before cutting boosts yield, but the feed value declines.
Traditionally, dairy farmers and hay sellers are most focused on putting up the best-quality alfalfa, while beef producers are willing to harvest slightly lower-quality alfalfa to get more volume. However, with the rise in beef prices there’s an increased interest in putting up higher-quality feed to ensure beef cows are in good health before and after calving, McGregor said.
Farmers seeking high-quality alfalfa will aim for a relative feed value of 150 or higher. Based on years of data collected under the Green Gold Program the optimum 150 relative feed value stage is early to mid-bud, not the traditional late-bud/first-bloom stage, says Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development’s website.
“Results showed relative feed value dropped an average of five points per day in each program year (1995-2009), with the decline in RFV most rapid in the early part of the spring,” the site says. “For producers targeting a forage quality of 150 RFV in the yard, we recommend cutting the alfalfa when it’s reached 170 RFV, as quality will drop an average of 20 points between cutting and delivery in the yard.”
So when alfalfa in their area is testing 180 RFV they should be cutting, if the weather allows, McGregor said.
“I have hay marketers looking for closer to 200 (RFV) because they can get a premium for that type of hay,” he said.
La Broquerie dairy farmer Ray Pelletier was one of the first farmers involved in the Green Gold Program and describes it as a “valuable tool.”
“It gives us the prime cutting date to get the maximum protein out of the first cut of alfalfa,” he said.
“I think it’s important that industry and government work together to maintain this program. I would like to bring it to the ears of government that we need this tool.”
Pelletier said the analysis is more accurate than eyeballing it, even for an experienced grower.
“Without the clippings (and test results) you don’t really know because every year is different,” he said. “You’d think it would be higher or lower than what the actual numbers are. It depends on the weather and if it’s colder or warmer than other years. Sometimes it looks too short to cut but you’re starting to lose quality already.”
Brothers John and Henry Nyhof, who run a dairy farm near Ile des Chenes, agree.
“Every spring is very different in Manitoba with when the snow melts and it starts growing,” said Henry Nyhof. “Some farmers cut at 10 per cent flower, but that’s not nearly as accurate as the Green Gold (Program), then you know for sure.”
The Nyhofs feed 500 milk cows, plus replacements and grow 600 acres of alfalfa.
“Our goal is to get really good-quality forage and try to save on grain costs and the Green Gold (Program) helps,” Henry said. “It tells us when the protein and feed value is highest… then you can figure out your harvest, so long as the weather co-operates of course.
“Last year we managed to get four cuts. We started early and our lower feed value last year was in the 170s and the highest was in the 240s.”
This year’s Green Gold Program major sponsor is Dairy Farmers of Manitoba. The other sponsors are: BrettYoung Seeds, Central Testing Laboratories, Enns Brothers — John Deere, H & L Motors, Marc Hutlet Seeds, Masterfeeds, Northstar Seed, Pickseed, PESAI, Royal Bank Canada, Steinbach Credit Union, and Viterra.