S5:E1 Reading an Alfalfa Stand with Al Pung and Leta Larsen

Feb 14, 2023



Show Notes

Reading the Stand 

With spring around the corner, everything is about to start growing again and alfalfa will soon come out of dormancy. Leta Larsen, Alfalfa and Forage Specialist with Croplan Alfalfa shares what we need to know about early season alfalfa.  

“The first thing we always focus on is reading the stand,” started Leta. “That’s evaluating how things came out of winter and if there was any damage done.” 

To read the stand, you need to start by doing a stand count. To complete this, you throw a square foot hoop or alfalfa circle, out into the field and count how many plants are in each square foot. For high yielding alfalfa you will want to have above 55 stems per sq/ft. When you find below 39 stems/sq/ft it is recommended that you rotate out of alfalfa, usually to corn to use the nitrogen credits created from your alfalfa crop. 

In addition to counting stems, its important to dig 5-10 plants across the field, then score the crowns and score the roots. When the roots are cut open, they should look white and healthy rather than gray and water soaked.  A score of 0-2 is a good healthy root indicating the crop will make it another year. A score of 3-5 scores is a sign to rotate out.  


If its a new seeding you can go in and replant some patches but if the stand has been out for longer than a year, its recommended to rotate out because auto-toxicity would prohibit that new seeding to grow.  

Considering seeding a new alfalfa field this year? Timing is important but there is not really a poor time to seed alfalfa, you just don’t want to seed too late. Ideally, the middle of August should be the latest in Michigan. The main issue with stand failure is poor seed bed preparation, so make sure to properly and firmly prepare the seed bed. Alfalfa seed should be planted at 3/8 inch.   

To learn more about reading the stand and seed bed preparation tune into our full conversation at Field Points. Next week, we will be diving into seedling diseases in alfalfa and how traits and genetics are impacting yield and quality.  


Morgan Seger (00:03):
Every day we rely on food, fuel, and fiber. But how much do you know about these industries we depend on? In this podcast, we dive deep into the production and processes of these everyday essentials. This is field points and original podcast production from Ceres Solutions. Welcome to Field Points. I'm your host, Morgan Seger. I am excited to introduce our fifth series on the Field Points podcast, and it's going to be focused on alfalfa. Now a lot goes into dairy nutrition, and throughout this series, we're going to be focusing specifically on the agronomics behind dairy nutrition. My goal is that you know everything you need to know to tackle high yielding, high quality alfalfa by the end of this series. My co-host throughout this series is Allen Pung, and our guest is Leta Larsen. Leta is an alfalfa and forage specialist for Croplan, and she is a professional when it comes to knowing what impacts alfalfa and how to improve stand persistence in the longevity of your crop. In this first episode, we're going to tackle the things growers should be thinking about as alfalfa comes out of dormancy, how weather impacts winter hardiness and stand persistence. And finally, we're going to talk through the best times for seeding a new crop and how to prepare your seed bed. First, let's meet my guest and my co-host, Allen.
Leta Larsen (01:23):
My name is Le Larson. I am an alfalfa and forage specialist with the cropland alfalfa team. So prior to my current role, which I started in June, I was a forage associate with our cropland alfalfa in forages marketing team. And what I did as an associate was I was actually a specialized associate and got my master's at the University of Minnesota. And so while I was out there, I got to work with our alfalfa plant pathologist. I believe she's the only alfalfa plant pathologist left in the country now. And so I got to work with her on focusing on seedling diseases and alfalfa. And so that's kind of my wheelhouse now. And then prior to that, I was actually at Michigan State as a student focused on agribusiness and agronomy. And then I got my start with Winfield, with Al. Actually, I was Al's intern in 2018. I would've been a junior at Michigan State. A sophomore? Yes. Gosh, I can't even remember now. So yeah, I started as Al's intern and then they must have liked me enough or felt bad for me enough to keep me on so then I was actually Mike Laird's intern. So he is our forage specialist that covers the entire eastern portion of the United States, of the Winfield territory. So he's got Ohio, Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania. And so I was actually out in New York as his intern, so worked in western New York with some big dairies out there. Loved it out there. And then they hired me on as an associate and helped partner with my research project with the University of Minnesota. Learned a ton out there. It's hard to believe that two years went by and I got a master's degree and now I'm already home. So I'm back home now. I'm covering the state of Michigan as our forage and alfalfa specialist. So obviously work very closely with all of our Ceres sellers up there. So live in Scoville, Michigan. Grew up on a dairy farm there. So right now my parents are milking around 700 cows.
So I live about a mile away from the farm, obviously very involved, help mostly with the cropping side of the operation. Every now and then I get pulled into the cow chores and things like that. That's just part of it. But yeah, very involved with the cropping side of things. Think my parents probably so I have two sisters as well. And I think growing up they encouraged us to go after whatever we wanted. They didn't want us to feel like we had to go back into agriculture. And now ironically, all three of us are back into it of some degree. And so I think we all just fell in love with it and realized our passions. And we all kind of have specialized roles on the farm. And my side is the cropping. That's what I love. I always loved the hay side in particular. Grew up raking hay, merging hay, that type of thing. So I always wanted to be involved with alfalfa to some degree. So to be in the job I'm in now really was the dream job for me. It's kind of funny how everything came full circle and how everything worked out. It's just a little bit of how I got into it. I guess.
Allen Pung (04:19):
She's still the only one at the farm that her dad trusts to run the merger. That's her job. Well, maybe it's not anymore, but for a long time it was. Yeah, we almost quit making hay because she wasn't there like, oh my gosh, Leta's not here. What are we going to do?
Leta Larsen (04:32):
I had to train my replacement when I moved to Minnesota. Yeah,
Allen Pung (04:35):
My story's not as interesting. My name's Allen Pung. I'm a regional agronomy sales manager for Ceres Solutions. The region I cover is what we call region one, which is Michigan. And we have mainly two locations that I work with in Michigan Fremont and McBain. I've worked for Ceres for four and a half years. Prior to that, I worked for Winfield for 12 years. And prior to that I worked at another location in Michigan for 18. So I've spent my whole career in Michigan in agriculture. I grew up on a farm around the Westphal area, got three we're actually grown kids now. They're not kids, they're men have their own families, couple grandkids that we're very proud of. So life is good. So we have a lot of large dairies in Fremont and McBain. And I've always worked with dairies my whole career. Years ago in my retail space, I always just kind of gravitated towards dairies. We melt cows growing up on the farm, so I've always been around cows. I melt cows for our neighbor all the way through high school and the first couple years of college. So I've always liked being around cows and just kind of understand. I mean, for the dairymen, it's obviously different. They're growing feed, they're not growing stuff for town. So their goals are different. And I think you have to be able to recognize that and help them. I mean, it just, it's different than somebody that's growing grain to market.
Morgan Seger (05:50):
As you can tell, our guests and my co-host are coming to this conversation with a lot of hands-on experience. The first topic we tackle is what growers should be thinking about as alfalfa is about to come out of dormancy this spring.
Leta Larsen (06:05):
So the first thing that we always focus on is what we call reading the stand. And so that's basically evaluating how things came out of winter, seeing if there was any damage done. And so what we do is we will evaluate the stem count of a stand as well as score the crowns or the roots for our stem counting. We actually have these handy dandy alfalfa rings we call them. And it's a circle. This is what the ring is, but it's actually a square foot. I know it sounds weird. And so all of our series team uses those. We have 'em that basically say like the guide on how many stems per square foot you should have. And for high yielding alfalfa, we do recommend above 55 stems per square foot. And that is non yield limiting. And then as you fall below 39 stems per square foot is really where we recommend that you rotate out.
So if you get below those 39 stems per square foot, that's a sign that you should probably rotate to another crop such as corn and util utilize those nitrogen credits from that alfalfa stand. And then the other piece that we do is we score the crowns or we score the roots. And so what we'll actually do is we'll take basically probably depending on the field size, five to 10 digs per field and actually split those crowns open, score the roots. And if that root is really white on the inside, there's very little discoloration or very, very little rot. It's probably healthy, probably going to make it through another production year. However, if there's a lot of rot, a lot of discoloration that's a sign of disease as well as a potential sign of winter kill or win winter damage. And so if it gets to a root score of 3, 4, 5, that's a sign that you should probably rotate out.
We're on a podcast, so I can't show the pictures, but basically a root score of zero to two is a good healthy route. And then three to five is a sign that you should probably rotate out a four and a five is probably dead. A three is right at that borderline that, hey, the stand is probably headed downhill. We have a little guide on reading the stand. Mm-hmm. And we'll give them to our growers early in the season and we'll give our growers those stand count rings as well if they want those. But that's something that all of us at cropland and in Ceres can help with. If a grower wants us to go out and evaluate how a stands came out of winter, we can definitely do that. So if there was a new seating, so a seating that's under a year old they could potentially go back and replant into those areas where it might look poor or maybe they didn't get the stand that they wanted to. But if a stand is over a year old, we really don't recommend that because then we run into this issue of auto toxicity. And so alfalfa can actually basically kill itself. An older alfalfa stand can kill a seedling due to an auto toxicity issue. So we don't recommend that if it's over a year old. So in an older stand, we would just recommend that they rotate, utilize those nitrogen credits for corn and then plan on a new seeding in another field.
Morgan Seger (08:51):
We will be sure to include those pictures that lead us talking about in our show notes for your
Leta Larsen (08:55):
Reference, the type of winter that we have does influence the winter hardiness or the stand persistence. So we can do everything right up front. We can plant the right varieties, we can have those excellent disease resistance, genetics, give those roots a good strong, healthy start, have strong roots for the life of that stand. We can continue to fertilize, get 'em potash, get 'em the antifreeze out there. So we know that fertilizer is not an issue, but then we could still have a bad winter. We could have a winter where we have very little snow cover. So snow cover actually acts as an insulator for alfalfa. And so it protects it from some of the environmental extremes that we can see. And then if we don't have any snow cover and we were to say have a bunch of rain in January, we saw in pockets of Michigan, and then that rain turns to ice, we can see a lot of ice cheating.
And then because of that, we can have a lot of winter kill or a lot of winter damage such as heaving out there. Just the differences in we were actually talking about that on the way down. Just some weird things that we've seen in the past few years in Michigan, just lack of snow cover. Just the fact that we get a lot more rains and a lot of ice sheeting that can definitely make that plant susceptible to winter damage and winter kill the polar vortex here is what my brain goes back to. Right? Yeah. We saw a lot of producers do a lot of things and they still had a lot of winter kill just because we saw temps sweat into negative 25. It was all ice sheeting. We had very little snow cover out there to act as a protector for that, those alfalfa stands. So that is a risk. Unfortunately snow is a good thing to alfalfa. We want a lot of snow cover, a lot of insulation. If you leave a lot of regrowth after your last cutting so say you've got 20, 25, 28 inches of regrowth out there, that's going to act as an insulator as well. So being conscious of when you finish cutting in the fall is a big deal too.
Allen Pung (10:39):
It takes quite a few heat growing degree days, I think, to break alfalfa out of its normalcy. So yeah, don't a little, I mean, some warm weather in January. I'm not exactly sure how many gds it takes for hay to kind of warm up. It'd have to be several days of in the sixties kind of thing. Yeah, several days for it to break. For it to break. And that hay, I think the ice thing too is a big deal because a lot of people don't realize, you know, talk about potash levels being good for the winter, hardiness of the alfalfa. Well, so the hay is the alfalfa's dormant, right? But it's still, it's perspiring. It's still breathing out there. So actually when you get a big ice heating it, like it's suffocates it. Yeah. Cause it can't breathe. I mean, that plant is still alive. So
Leta Larsen (11:20):
No matter how healthy it is, if it gets suffocated
Allen Pung (11:24):
And that it's
Leta Larsen (11:24):
Probably not going to live right.
Allen Pung (11:25):
The ice thing is a big deal. Ponding water and not so much the water is bad, but if it freezes and turns dice, that's where it's really bad.
Leta Larsen (11:33):
That's the issue.
Allen Pung (11:34):
Because even though it's dormant, that plant is still alive. It still needs to breathe sometimes we don't know. Really. We don't. And that's why scouting alfalfa stands in the spring is so important. Once they are waking up and then you can assess this is because otherwise what we have, if we don't do that, what happens is first cutting, first cutting typically always looks really good, right? Because you'll have grass, you'll have other stuff. So you got a lot out there. Weeds. Weeds, oh, it looks fine, it looks fine. I told you guys it was okay, well then second cutting comes because maybe we've gotten a little drier. It's a little warmer. So now the grass doesn't grow back quite as quick. So now a lot of times growers will literally Morgan, they'll pull in there with their mowers on second cutting and they'll pull into the field and they're like, where is a home? My LF at it's 15 here.
Leta Larsen (12:17):
Nothing is tall in the stand
Allen Pung (12:18):
Density. And that's 30. That's a bad day because they need feed, obviously, to feed the cows, and they don't want to find on second cutting. So sure, we can plant some in the summer when they figure out they have to take something out. But that's not the time be figuring you got to take something out because that field you just planted, you're not going to get anything off from that basically until next year. So that's why that reading the stand in the spring is so important because a lot of times we don't know what it looks like until you get out there and look and later in the year is not the time to figure out that you have a poor stand of alfalfa.
Leta Larsen (12:50):
I would say. I even hear it from my growers. They always say, oh, I left that stand in one year longer than what I should have. We always try to extend it just one year too long.
Allen Pung (13:00):
Everybody leaves 'em in one year too long. Yeah, they'll all almost, they'll all tell you that. They'll admit it. They will. No, I shouldn't. I left that in one year too long. Yeah, because then they pull in the field or they get to the end of the year and they're like, oh geez, that shoot, I shoot. Yeah, shoot, shoot. But yeah, the yield on that field was terrible, and especially this year with nitrogen prices over the last couple years. That's why Leta was saying, why not take that field out of production? Because the little bit of alfalfa, you're going to get off from that. The nitrogen credits for your corn crop that you're going to plant an air are worth more to you than the hay you're going to take off.
Morgan Seger (13:34):
If you're listening to this and you can relate to leaving your stand in one year too long. Lida walks us through how to make that termination decision.
Leta Larsen (13:42):
I would say it depends on the grower, but there's a lot of just mean really good alfalfa managers out there as far as growers go that say seating year plus three and then I'm out, then I'm done. No matter, even if the stand looks really good, they're like, I'm out because I know that eventually that stand's probably going to start to go downhill. And if I have a healthier stand that has more plants per square foot, I'm going to get more nitrogen credits. So
Allen Pung (14:07):
It is interesting because you'll have a plan and so you're going to see the a hundred acres, so there's going to be a hundred acres that are going to come out. So maybe we'll go out in March, April, depends on the year and make those assessments. And I find it interesting, and sometimes it's just the field conditions. So you may think this field is going to come out because what Leta said, it's time or it is time. Maybe it is four years or maybe sometimes it's free. But until you go make that, go out to the field and do that scouting. Yeah, you don't know because sometimes that field that's five years old, maybe it's on really productive soil. You've managed it really well. Everything's really clicked, huh? This is good. Yeah, I'm going to keep this one. But the three-year-old stand because of whatever lethal was saying, the calves, you know, go relate it back to the calf
Leta Larsen (14:49):
Incident. If they had a bad start, they
Allen Pung (14:51):
Had a bad start for whatever reason, it happens even when the best plans. So maybe that one, even though it's only three years old, oh, that one's got to come out because it's just not going to meet my expectations.
Leta Larsen (15:02):
But like Al said, you do need to have a plan for replacing those. You
Allen Pung (15:05):
Got to have a plan to replace, but sometimes you have to have that flexibility. You don't necessarily know. You kind of think which fields are going to come out, but something may happen or we may get spend that time of year is terrible for that. In March, especially where we're at, if the fields are a little wet, you got a lot of frost you get heaving that time of year. Temperatures are variable. So you may have a plan of doing a hundred acres, and we may come to the end of March or April when the alfalfa really breaks dormant saying, we've had a tough march, it's happened. Several of our areas. It happened in Wisconsin a few years ago where they receded, I don't know, it was what, 30%, 50% of their alfalfa because of a tough spring. And nobody had a plan for that. It's just, but you have to go out and look. It happens.
Leta Larsen (15:46):
That's the key. Some do try to get a first cutting off and then rotate to corn. But I would say typically in Michigan, they're unhappy with the corn yield then if they were to get one cutting off and then rotate to corn. Some do it though, and they've always done it and that's what they do. But I would recommend just rotating out and not getting that first cutting off
Allen Pung (16:05):
If you get a disaster like that. I think some of it depends a little bit. Each dairy's going to be a little bit different. It may depend on their feed inventories, you know, can go in. I know some folks when that happened in Wisconsin, they actually went in and seeded like a
Leta Larsen (16:18):
Sorghum by
Allen Pung (16:18):
Sudan, sorghum sudan type crop to try to just because they had to have something. They couldn't, okay, I got to recede 50% of my hay. Well that's not going to work because I don't have the feed inventory. I got to have something to feed my cows. It depends a little bit on the, each farm is going to be a little bit different whether they've got feed or right now in Michigan, we're blessed with having a couple of very good production years. So most of the dairies that we're working with have a lot of feed inventory. They were running out of spaces last fall to put feed. It's like some of 'em, like that's a good problem. I I've done harvesting. I have no more room at far at home to put up feed. I'm full. I know some folks that even poured more cement.
Leta Larsen (16:59):
Well, that was us at home, so they pile price of cement right. Now that's not cheap
Allen Pung (17:03):
Either. And some of it is because you don't know what next year's going to bring. Yeah, it's nice to have that extra feed inventory of that cushion because you don't know next year it might be dry and you may have 50% you yield on your alfalfa and you might be glad you have it.
Morgan Seger (17:17):
Also, if you find yourself in a situation where you have a bumper crop, you have a lot more flexibility on tactics that could help you improve your stance. Persistence, <laugh>,
Leta Larsen (17:27):
Less wheel traffic, less injury to crowns. As soon as those crowns start to get injured by wheel traffic, by running them over a ton, they're never going to come back. So as soon as that crown starts to rot away, we can't get that back. So there's a lot of data that has showed. We definitely do see a yield loss because of wheel traffic. And it's something that's hard to escape from because we have to keep cutting and
Allen Pung (17:49):
We, alfalfa is quite an incredible crop when you think about it. I mean, what other crop do we have where we take the whole plant four times a year, cut it right off at the ground? And in the process of that, just like Lida said, there's been studies that have been done practically every square inch of that field by the time you're done will have been driven on. And all the equipment we have today, we have big choppers
Leta Larsen (18:09):
Designed to harvest, have bigs, corn silage.
Allen Pung (18:11):
It doesn't have
Sage in
Mind and they're heavy. They don't have, right. Yeah. And so really we run over that plant and that it lasts 3, 4, 5 years is really kind of incredible when you think about it. That's why the management piece is so, yeah. Important. It takes a lot of abuse.
Morgan Seger (18:28):
Now we're going to talk about the best time for new seeding alfalfa and seed bed prep.
Allen Pung (18:32):
I think that with the traits and technology that we have in alfalfa today, we're with Roundup ready. It used to be a lot of folks were real heavy springs seated, and part of that was because of the weed control options we had. It's easier today now with Roundup ready to keep the seedings, the seedlings clean. And I think that makes, now we kind of tell folks, if you have rainfall and there's good moisture, there's not really a pore time to seed lf. No, I mean the big thing, no, there's not. Don't do it too late. That's probably the biggest obstacle we run into because it needs so many heat units to get ready for fall to over winter to get a good root system developed. So we have some folks that will, that'll want to seed into that late August or even Labor Day September. And for us in Michigan, that's just too late. Yeah, I mean ideally it should be. I mean, I think the middle August is probably the latest you want to go in, preferably earlier than
Leta Larsen (19:21):
That. Historically, we always said fall seedings, right? But we really should say late summer for Michigan <laugh> because it really shouldn't be fall. And even on the flip side of that, I think a lot of growers always thought they had to seed really early too, get their alfalfa in before corn. I've even had some growers tell me that they used to seed at the end of March if they had a field conditions ideal to do so. And it's like that's plenty early. Those soils really are not warmed up yet. There's a lot of data that does show alfalfa germinates best in warm soil. We avoid a lot of those early season diseases such as pythium and phytophthora if we seed it a little later. So there's really nothing wrong with seeding later, even planting after corn. I know it sounds crazy to some guys that might sound a little bit foreign, but there's really nothing wrong with that.
Allen Pung (20:04):
Number one issue for alfalfas stand failure is just poorer seedbed preparation. It needs to be firm
To be able to dribble a basketball. I mean, not fully, but dribble it and it bounces firm enough when you see alfalfa growing in the tire tracks <laugh>, right? It was probably a seedbed prep issue. That's where it was the firma. So that's where it's growing.
And I'm sure you've seen 'em in your part of the country, the big rollers that guys are using for after soybeans. Have you seen those big, they're just solid rollers. I mean, some of 'em are 30, 40 feet wide. We have a lot of dairy and those are great for seeding alfalfa
And uls
Too. And the big rollers have really become popular. We have maybe a couple neighbors will go in and buy one together because the only thing they're doing with it is seed bed preparation for alfalfa. It's, you can't rule too much. I've seen guys fit the field and then just ready to plant and then they'll roll it and then they'll plant it and then they'll come back and roll it down again. And those fields have the best, because that I fell. A seed is so small, it's so hard. Seed, the soil contact is critical for it.
Leta Larsen (21:11):
And then not getting it too deep
Allen Pung (21:13):
And not getting it too deep when you bury it and nobody, I mean, brilliant drills we're always, and they're still a great tool, but you're going to go out and seed a hundred acres of alfalfa. You're not, you're going to use a 15 foot brilliant drill. No, we have guys now using 30 foot air planters. Air
Leta Larsen (21:28):
Seeders. Yeah. The air seeders do an excellent job. I mean, grain drills are good to grain
Allen Pung (21:32):
Leta Larsen (21:33):
Allen Pung (21:33):
I mean the big air seeders that you would think of for planting like wheat Yeah. And soybeans. Those are the best seeding cul, yeah. Yeah. The first time I saw a guy using one of those, I thought, huh, they're That's a disaster. Yeah. But no, it was a great stand. I mean to the point where this Elva business has just gotten crazy. I mean, we have guys taking alfalfa seed in boxes, not in bags. They want it in the big pro boxes because they're seeding that much hay or they're using these big drills where they're not going to sit there and cut bags and stuff. They want it in boxes. And we do that. We provide that.
Leta Larsen (22:04):
So how Deep do you recommend, please, around three eights of an inch. So a lot of times icy growers still get it too deep. It's scary. I know. Because they've got corn in their mind and they're like, oh, you got to get the seed in the ground. And it's like, ah, not too far. Three eights is all, it's all it needs. It's a little seed.
Allen Pung (22:22):
And that's why a lot of folks still probably prefer spring. Yeah. Because typically there is some moisture in, you're more apt to get moisture right after you plant. That's one of the problems with summer. Even if you get it in timely, the first week of August, you may go, I mean, I've seen it. We see it all the time. You may go, it may be dry, you might go three weeks before we get a good activating rain to get that seed going. Those seedings are going to have a tough time because now it's the end of August and they're just got started because it just rained. Here it is after Labor Day and there's still only two or three sets of Tripoli. It's, they're small. They have basically no roots and we're, they're probably not going to make it through the winter. They're going to. They're not going to live.
Leta Larsen (22:59):
Yeah. I would say just from a producer standpoint on my family's farm, that's why we've gotten away from fall seeding or late summer and gone offspring. It's just too risky. Some falls are great and we could get away with it, but there's other falls. We just don't get water.
Allen Pung (23:15):
And I think the traditional spring summer seatings have kind of, because now we'll have folks, well, and I know your dad did. I mean we talked about it, it was June they were done, or maybe it was after week came off, they were done doing other stuff. It was in between cuttings. We had some good moisture and we talked about it and he says, what do you think about plant hay right now, alfalfa right now? And I'm like, I don't see any reason why not. Yeah, I deferred delete. I said, ask your daughter and see what she thinks about it. But I think if you got good moisture, why not? We don't. Why we don't have to wait till August. There's nothing that says you have to wait till August. Plan alfalfa, plant it right now. If we got good moisture.
Morgan Seger (23:48):
Leta and Allen will both be joining us in our next episode where we will be getting into Leta's wheelhouse, talking about seedling diseases. We will also be covering traits and genetics in alfalfa. So if that is something that you are curious about, you will not want to miss the next episode. I want to take a quick moment to thank everyone who has left us a review on our podcast. We are so grateful for your feedback. We read every review that comes in, and we had one from a dairy farmer that said they couldn't wait for the dairy segment. So I hope this information is valuable to you. And if you are listening and you have other ideas or topics, please leave us a review and let us know what you want to hear.

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