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Time to plant alfalfa
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Time to plant alfalfa

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After corn and soybeans, alfalfa is the most grown crop in Saline, Jefferson, and Gage counties. Based on satellite imagery and crop reflectance, USDA CropScape estimates there was over 18,000 acres of alfalfa growing in 2020 in Saline, Jefferson, and Gage counties. Assuming farmers maintain alfalfa stands for 5 to 7 years, there are about 3,000 new seeding alfalfa acres planted each year.

In our area, late summer and early spring are the two target planting windows for alfalfa. Late summer after winter wheat from August 15 to September 1 works well when we have good soil moisture, and it has less weed challenges than with spring planting. We are already in the recommended spring planting window of April 1 to May 15. Alfalfa seedlings are very cold-tolerant, so there is very little risk when planting after April 1.

Use inoculated, fungicide-treated alfalfa seed at rates of 12 to 15 pounds per acre in rainfed fields and 15 to 20 pounds per acre in irrigated fields. There are some advantages to the higher end of these seeding rate recommendations when conditions are not perfect. Higher spring seeding rates can help increase canopy cover and competitiveness against weeds. However, over-seeding is costly and alfalfa stands will self-thin down to a similar number of plants per acre by the end of the second year whether seeded at 15 pounds verses 20 pounds per acre. In general, I do not recommend planting companion crops other than on tilled highly erodible soils.

Plant alfalfa into a firm seedbed at ¼ to ½ inch deep in fine-texture soils that make up most fields in Saline, Jefferson, and Gage counties. In sandier soils like Jansen and Meadin loam in west central Jefferson County, planting at ½ to ¾ inch deep should be considered. No-till drilling alfalfa at 8-inch row spacing or narrower is recommended.

With no-till alfalfa, pre-plant incorporated herbicides are not an option. Therefore, start clean and burn down emerged weeds with glyphosate. Most small weeds can be controlled with post-emergence herbicides in new seeding alfalfa fields. For more information on weed control options in alfalfa, come pick up a new 2021 UNL Guide for Weed, Disease, and Insect Management in Nebraska. This Guide offers valuable information on weed, disease, and insect management for alfalfa and other crops. The 2021 edition is available at a reduced cost for walk-ins. Our local extension offices are open to the public for walk-ins. As a reminder, the Extension offices are in Wilber at 306 West 3rd Street, in Fairbury at 517 F Street, and in Beatrice at 1115 West Scott.

For more information about seeding alfalfa, download our NebGuide G2247: Seeding Alfalfa at extensionpubs.unl.edu or feel free to contact me at nathan.mueller@unl.edu or 402-821-1722. Know your crop, know your tech, know your bottom line at croptechcafe.org.

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