Alfalfa First Crop Harvest Starting Soon!

Area dairy farms are finishing up planting season and getting ready to start harvest season.  The first crop of perennial forages, such as alfalfa and perennial grasses, is starting in our two county area this week, and will continue into early June.

Why the range in harvest timing?  Every farm has forage quality goals that they want to meet with their harvested forages.  The perfect situation for a particular farm is to harvest on precisely the day at which the standing forage will result in their forage quality goal.  Harvesting too early means that they lose yield, whereas harvesting too late means the harvested forage is lower quality and the farm has to spend more on expensive off-farm feedstuffs to balance their fed ration.

What makes managing harvest timing difficult is that first crop maturation is not consistent from year to year.  Some years, a farm’s optimum harvest date is June 10th, other years it could be as early as May 20th.  The Marinette and Oconto County offices of UW-Madison, Division of Extension, assist farms in the counties in this harvest balancing act.  Scott Reuss, Agriculture Agent, monitors standing alfalfa fields and reports changing maturity so that farms are able to maximize their farm’s harvested forage value.

2021’s spring created significant problems for alfalfa growth and maturation in our area, with nearly a week of frost events, followed by very dry conditions which limited growth on many soil types.  Thankfully, some warm temperatures and an area-wide rain occurred, and now it appears that most area dairy farms will be starting first crop forage harvest during the last full week of May.  However, farms with moister, cooler soils or those north of the Crivitz area will likely be waiting until very late May or even into the first few days of June.  Additionally, beef farms or fields which are being harvested to feed dairy heifers will not be harvested until well into June.

Reuss collected a full set of monitoring data on Wednesday, May 19, with most fields registering 210 to 225 Relative Forage Value points.  Most dairy farms prefer to have approximately 170 RFV point forage to feed their dairy herd, but that varies by the farm.  The problem is that we see about a 10% decrease in RFV during the harvest and storage process, and RFV decreases approximately 4 points per day in normal conditions.  All this means that dairy farms are getting ready to start harvest!  Again, the exception is our northern herds, where alfalfa is still 235 RFV points and higher.

To hear the most recent (monitoring dates of May 24 and 28, June 1 and 4 if applicable) data from this project, farms can hear the recorded data at 715-732-7510.  They are also welcome to contact Reuss directly via e-mail to or via cell phone at 715-701-0966.

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