Tips for managing alfalfa through a drought

(Kara Oosterhuis/RealAgriculture)

The Northern Great Plains are in a major drought. Unfortunately, there isn’t a better way to say it out loud, as it’s not just the Canadian Prairies — the drought extends into parts of the whole western half of North America.

Janna Block, livestock systems extension specialist with North Dakota State University extension, recently joined Kara Oosterhuis to talk about how drought conditions are affecting alfalfa in the region and management strategies to get at least something out of this year’s crop.

As part of a team with a forage agronomist at NDSU’s main campus, Block has been able to do in-field research to guide management recommendations for alfalfa in drought conditions. Block says that an interesting number came across her radar: 65 per cent of alfalfa produced in the U.S. is under drought conditions. She expects a lot of grazing will happen to try to utilize what crop is there.

As an extension specialist, Block’s advice is to assess the situation, including looking at plant height, to see if it’s worth putting fuel and labour into the crop or if it can be utilized in another way.

“Our recommendation [is]… if you get much below that 12 inch plant height, it’s usually not worth harvesting, so then you can look at getting some livestock out there to graze,” says Block, adding to pay attention to growth stage. By this time of the year, the alfalfa should be bloomed out, and the risk of bloat should have passed.

Alfalfa weevils can cause extra stress to the crop, as can blister beetles, says Block. One way to mitigate the weevil population is to cut that stand if it’s below the 12 inch height, but no matter which way you slice it, there’s just going to be less there.

To try and figure out how many head of livestock that can graze the crop, and how many days of grazing they’ll have, Block says it’s important to get a good handle on the production of the stand. Utilize your local resources to get an idea of production quality, and perhaps send in a sample for forage quality. It’s important to factor in harvest efficiency to account for trampling, waste, and maintaining stubble height, says Block.

Listen to the full conversation below for more grazing and management recommendations:

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