Tips to Reduce Alfalfa Leaf Loss & Improve Silage Quality

Now's the time to have a look at hay and silage you are feeding to determine leaf content because studies indicate that 71% of the difference in forage quality is due to the leaf content of the forage. Good alfalfa should run around 50% leaves when it's harvested.

"Alfalfa forage leaf loss occurs in the harvesting process. We all know leafy is better but I don't think producers realize how crucial it is to the forage quality," said Dan Undersander, Extension forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin. "We have actually measured several fields where we started off with 45% to 55% leaves and in the harvesting process ended up with 30% leaves or less."

If the leaf content is less than 45%, Undersander recommends the following production tips to increase leaf and quality content:

  • Leaves on the ground? — Prior to harvest or at harvest, look at how many leaves are already on the ground, having fallen off the growing plant. If significant, reconsider the variety choice; some alfalfa varieties offer more leaf disease resistance than others. In areas with a lot of leaf diseases, areas that are cool and wet or warm over summer, consider a fungicide application. In certain environmental conditions, applying Quadris or Headline® when the plant is about 4" to 6" tall to help preserve the leaves may be worthwhile. This is especially helpful for producers who let the alfalfa mature to first flower.
  • Use a roller conditioner. — Mow alfalfa with a roller conditioner for minimal leaf loss. If you are using a flail, or impeller, conditioner, the flail strips a lot of leaves off the alfalfa and reduces the forage quality.
  • Limit forage movement. — Every time forage is moved, there will be leaf loss, which reduces tonnage and quality. Avoid tedding; it's best to mow into a wide swath and rake forage once and then not touch it again until it's baled or chopped.
  • Wet handling is better. — The wetter the forage is during handling, the less leaf loss will occur. For example, if you can rake it from a swath into a windrow at 50% moisture, you'll have less loss than when raking it at 30% moisture.
  • Bale big. — Big balers are less of a problem than the small square balers when it comes to leaf loss. The bigger windrow will reduce leaf loss.
  • Follow the West. — In both baling and chopping, producers in the western U.S. rake hay into a windrow, let the evening dew come on and then bale it overnight. The dampness makes it a little tougher and holds the leaves to the forage better, so they don't break apart or fly off.
  • Adjust rotary rake to field conditions. — During machinery setup or adjustment, ensure you are using the correct PTO to ground speed ratio.

"A lot of leaf loss is difficult to physically see, and it's so important that farmers keep their eyes open and monitor losses," concluded Undersander.