Farmers grow approximately 1.25 million acres of alfalfa and mixed hay annually to feed Wisconsin’s 1.26 million dairy cows. Sheboygan County’s share of that total is 40,000 acres of alfalfa and mixed hay and about 26,000 cows. Maximizing the quality and quantity of alfalfa is essential for profitable dairy farming. First crop alfalfa represents approximately 40% of the total alfalfa yield for the year. It is the most digestible NDFD (Neutral Detergent Fiber Digestibility) crop due to its development during the cooler months as opposed to the second, third, and fourth crop. Mismanaged first crop harvest is a lost opportunity to feed high-quality forage and misaligns second, third, and fourth crops for the remainder of the growing season.
Monitoring the quality of alfalfa growth and development is important due to the yearly weather variations. The yearly weather variations result in optimal harvest dates ranging anywhere from May 18th to June 10th depending on the annual growing conditions. Alfalfa quality may be reduced by 3-5 points per day in Relative Forage Quality (RFQ) as the plant matures. Temperature extremes combined with stressed plants may result in losses as high as 10 -15 RFQ points in as little as two or three days. If alfalfa quality is not tracked, farmers may miss the window of opportunity for harvesting high-quality forages. That results in higher costs for purchased feed inputs and lower milk yields thus reducing farmers’ net profits.
The forage quality difference in 2020 between harvesting May 29th (optimal harvest date) and June 5th translated into approximately $280/acre of increased milk yields. If half of Sheboygan County’s 40,000 alfalfa acres were harvested one week earlier as a result of this UW-Extension alfalfa quality educational program, an additional $5 million of annual milk sales would be generated for Sheboygan County dairy farmers.
The forage quality information developed by Extension Sheboygan County is shared with about 550 subscribers to the Tri-County email list (Sheboygan, Washington, Ozaukee counties), mailed directly to Sheboygan County’s 115 dairy farmers and is useful to crop consultants and animal nutritionists as they consult with their clients.