Alfalfa production and winter injury due to cold temperatures
In the last couple of weeks, I have heard many concerns about alfalfa production for this upcoming spring. Cold temperatures and lack of snow cover are the two main issues producers are worried about for next season’s crop production, as certainly the alfalfa plant could die if exposed to extremely cold temperatures. In general, alfalfa plants can tolerate up to three weeks of winter injury before the plants are killed. This length of time will be less if soil temperatures are near freezing and longer if the soil is colder. This is primarily due to the plant being forced into a deeper dormancy when the soil is colder. The plant is therefore less likely to leave dormancy in early-spring conditions, and hence becoming susceptible to an early frost.
What factors could affect alfalfa plants this winter?
1. Stand age: older stands are more likely to winterkill than younger plants.
2. Soil pH: soils with a pH above 6.6 are less likely to experience winter injury.
3. Soil fertility: stands planted in soils with high natural fertility are less likely to experience winter injury than those with low fertility.
4. Variety: Alfalfa varieties with superior winter hardiness ratings and a high disease resistance index are less likely to experience winter injury.
5. Cutting management: Harvest frequency and timing of fall cutting will affect alfalfa winter hardiness. The general trend shows that the shorter the interval between cuttings during the growing season, the greater risk of winter injury. An aggressive harvest schedule prevents the plant from storing carbohydrates in its root structure which it will need to maintain health as it regrows. Stands in which last cutting is taken between September 1 and middle of October are at greatest risk, as plants did not have enough time to accumulate adequate carbohydrate levels in the root system before winter.
6. Snow cover: Snow provides insulation to the plants and the crown. The crucial temperature region is two to four inches below the soil surface where a large part of the root structure is located. Stands that have at least six inches of stubble left will be able to retain more snow cover and be less susceptible to winter injury.
When and where to look for winter injury?
Once the snow cover melts, it is advised to walk through your field, assessing for potential problems with your upcoming season’s alfalfa production. Here are some tips that will help you to get started on where to look for suspecting possible winter injury:
1. Stands which are slow to green up. Compare your stand to other fields in the area. If you notice that some areas are starting to grow and other areas of your alfalfa field still brown, it is time to check those brown stands for injury or death.
2. Winter-killed roots will have a gray appearance. If the root is soft and water can be easily squeezed from it, or it has a brown color, it is a probable sign of winter cold-related death.
3. Asymmetrical growth and uneven growth are also two indicators of winter injury. Compare the shoots on the same plant, and if you notice that one set of the shoots seems to be drastically outperforming another in terms of growth, it could be that winter cold damaged the bud structure of your plants.
Guideline on stem density
If you think your stands have been injured, you can follow this guideline to make decisions to either keep or replant your alfalfa field after winter injury.
Stem Density (stems/sq. ft.): Decision
Under 40: Poor yield production, consider replanting
40-55: Limitations in yield potential
Over 55: No limitations in yield potential
• Hesterman OB and Durling JC (1991) Avoiding winter injury to alfalfa. Cooperative Extension Service. Michigan State University. Extension Bulletin E-2310. Pages: 1-8.
• Undersander D (2013) The cold temperatures and Alfalfa. University of Wisconsin Extension.