First-Cut Alfalfa Silage – Quality Versus Quantity

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When it comes to first-cut alfalfa, it’s best to start with the end in mind – know what quality and yield are needed for your dairy or beef cows. Higher-quality alfalfa silage can increase your relative feed value. For dairy and beef producers, this can help improve animal performance while maintaining profitability.


The Trade-Off – Quality Versus Quantity


When addressing areas of concern, it always starts with forage quality. It’s important to realize that forage quality is always a trade-off between the time that you are harvesting and the maturity of the stand itself, especially in first cutting.


“For dairy cows, I want to have very high-quality forage due to milk production, but there’s always a trade-off,” said Phil Kaatz, Michigan State University Extension. “To have high quality, producers will end up decreasing the yield that comes out of the field, especially in first cutting. I tell my dairy producers, ‘I would rather be a day early cutting alfalfa than a day late.’ Because if I’m a day late, the quality I have out there is going to decrease very quickly.”

Forage Quality vs Quantity

However, beef producers may be willing to sacrifice quality a little for some or all of their crop to gain more yield, depending on their overall forage needs (i.e., pounds of gain for growing heifers or steers or maintaining body condition for lactating beef cows).


The perfect harvest time can be a moving target with constant changes like temperature, moisture and drying conditions to consider. Missing it by a day might mean a week before you can get back in the field if rain comes in. However, if harvest has been delayed, it can still fit into your ration.


Different species of animals and forage quality needs based on Relative Forage Quality scale.

Forage Quality Needs of Animals

“No farmer has all number-one, high-quality hay. Sometimes it’s number one; sometimes it’s number two; sometimes it’s number three and it’s been rained on several times,” Kaatz said. “It’s important to plan how to market or use the hay that they have in their forage ration with their livestock operation.”

Alfalfa % of yearly yield

Percentage of Yearly Yield X Cutting, East Lansing, MSU Alfalfa Yield Summaries 2015-2017


The first cutting is normally 40% of a producer’s overall yield in a four-cut system, so it’s very important to get it right.


“Dairy producers say there’s more pounds of milk performance per acre in first-cut silage than any other cutting, which is tied to quality,” Kaatz noted. “Since it’s the highest yield, it’s important to get the highest quality for the first cutting based on your livestock needs.”

Alfalfa %2

Percentage of Yearly Yield X Cutting, Chatham, MSU Alfalfa Yield Summaries 2015-2017


For those that are in a three-cut system, like a beef operation or an area that doesn’t have the heat requirements for a four-cut system, the first cutting is even more critical at 55% to 60% of the overall yield. Average yields drop to 29% of overall yield for second cutting.


Moisture is another important component to attain high-quality silage. In a bunk silo, silage should be at 35% to 40% dry matter. For an upright silo, 40% dry matter is needed.


“Harvesting at the right moisture is really critical, but sometimes the weather is working against you,” Kaatz explained. “I encourage farmers to have a goal and to harvest according to their experience too. It takes art and science combined to do a good job in harvesting alfalfa.”


Alfalfa should be cut at the right growing degree days for the region and variety, and the temperature starts at 42° when degree days start to collect. Some parts of the country have already started to accumulate growing degree days.


Remember Safety First


Regardless of the battle with weather and crop maturity, don’t lose sight of safety. Life-threatening accidents can happen at every step of the silage-making process. Always take time to consider the danger points and discuss them with the team you are working with before beginning.


Phil Kaatz
Phil Kaatz, Michigan State University Extension

Headline image courtesy of Phil Kaatz


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