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Do stem and plant density predict alfalfa yield?

Craig Sheaffer, Extension forage specialist, Nathan Drewitz, Extension educator - crops, and Jacob Jungers, Assistant professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics

Measuring alfalfa density. Photo: Nathan Drewitz
The best method for determining the forage yield potential of an alfalfa stand is by directly measuring yield at harvest. However, researchers at the University of Wisconsin have estimated forage yield by measuring plant and stem density.

Stem and plant density measurements can help determine the success of establishment, the yield potential after winter injury, and timing of stand termination. Stand evaluations are typically performed in both fall before dormancy and spring once regrowth is over 2 inches tall. In some instances, these methods can be used during the season to determine if stand issues need to be remedied. Because these evaluations are important when making management decisions, a better understanding of how these numbers are derived and whether they are dependable predictors of yield is needed.

Alfalfa stand density

Alfalfa stand density, defined as the number of plants per square foot, has long been used as a predictor of forage yield and when to terminate stands in rotation. A plant density of 25-30 plants per square foot (plants/ft2) or more is recommended in fall of the seeding year. This provides not only for maximum yields but also enough plants to overwinter and to support productive stands in subsequent years. Seeding rates typically used by producers in the 10-20 pound per acre range provide from 50-75 seeds per square foot (seeds/ft2). Assuming 50% seed mortality during the seeding year, these rates are normally adequate to achieve a goal of 25 plants/ft2 in the fall.

Plant and stem density study

To better understand relationships between alfalfa plant density, stem density and alfalfa yield, we conducted a three-year study at three Minnesota locations: St. Paul, Becker, and Rosemount. Four modern alfalfas with fall dormancy ratings of 4 and 5 were established using seeding rates from 5 to 72 seeds/ft2. These seeding rates resulted in stands with a wide range of plant densities. We collected yield data from two harvests in the seeding year and from three or four harvests at bud stage in the first two years after seeding. Stem densities were measured at each harvest while plant densities were taken in the spring and fall. Averages over locations, harvests, and densities were used in the analysis.

Plant density and forage yield results

Our recent research shows that seeding year yields were maximized at 3-4 ton per acre at alfalfa densities of about 30 plants/ft2 (Figure 1). Figure 1 shows negligible change in seeding year yields from 20-40 plants/ft2, as indicated by the line of best fit. However, as judged by the low R2 value, plant populations are a poor predictor of yields. An R2 (the coefficient of determination) value – a measure of predictive power of the regression model – of 1 would mean that 100% of the yield is predicted by plant numbers/ ft2.
Figure 1. Relationship between plant density (plants/ft2) and relative forage yield in the seeding year. Data averaged over 3 MN locations and 4 alfalfa varieties with fall dormancy ratings of 4 and 5.

Likewise, in the first (Figure 2) and second production year (data not shown), plant density was overall a poor predictor of yield. Despite its poor predictive power, this method does show that there is a significant drop off in yields at plant densities less than 10 plants/ft2. Traditional recommendations use plant densities of < 5 plants/ft2 to indicate poor stand yield potential.

Figure 2. Relationship between plant density (plants/ft2) and relative forage yield in the first production year. Data is averaged over 3 MN locations and 4 alfalfa varieties with dormancy ratings of 4 and 5.

Stem density and forage yield results

As alfalfa stands age, competition for resources, diseases, and crown injury due to winter and traffic reduce plant numbers. Decreases from 25 plants/ft2 in the fall of the seeding year to 5-10 plants/ft2 by the end of the second production year are commonly reported. This reduction in plant density is compensated for by an increase in plant root and crown size and stems per plant (Figure 3). However, injury to older crowns by traffic or disease can reduce the numbers of stems and productivity of individual stems (Figure 4).
Figure 3. The crown and stems of a three-year-old (left) and one-year-old alfalfa plant (right). Older alfalfa plants have broader crowns and more stems per plant than younger plants.
Figure 4. Damage to a three-year old alfalfa crown can limit stem density and the mass or yield of each individual stem.

University of Wisconsin research with one to three year old stands found that stem density was a better predictor of alfalfa yield than plant density. Those researchers recommended using a combination of stand density and plant health to predict yield and stand termination. At a critical level of >55 stems/ft2, future yield was not limited by stem density. At 40-55 stems/ft2, some yield reduction was expected depending on the health of roots.

Our recent research also shows that stem density is a better predictor of alfalfa yield than plant density beginning in the year after seeding. While stem density is a poor predictor of yield in the seeding year (Figures 5), it was a better predictor in the first and second production years (R2= .48) (Figure 6). This level of prediction was somewhat less than levels reported in the Wisconsin research discussed above. We also found that stem densities of about 70 stems/ft2 maximized forage yields, a somewhat higher number than the 55 stems/ft2 reported for Wisconsin. At 55 stems/ft2, yields in our study were about 80% of the maximum yield. When both stem density and plant density were considered for prediction of yield, the effectiveness of prediction (R2) did not increase.

Figure 5. Relationship between stem density (stems/ft2) and relative forage yield in the seeding year. Data averaged over 3 MN locations and 4 alfalfa varieties with fall dormancy ratings of 4 and 5.

Figure 6. Relationship between stem density (stems/ft2) and relative forage yield in the first production year. Data averaged over 3 MN locations and 4 alfalfa varieties with fall dormancy ratings of 4 and 5.


Our results with seedling to second year healthy alfalfa stands showed that stem density was a better predictor of yield than plant density. Combining plant density and stem density into a prediction equation did not improve the accuracy of prediction. Plant densities of less than 10/ft2 did result in a significant yield decline in the years following seeding.

It is important to clarify that our prediction of relationships between stem density and yield explained less than 50% of the changes in yield. Even earlier research in Wisconsin, found that stem density changes explained less than 60% of the changes in yield. These results show that other plant morphological traits, such as stem mass and stem leafiness, interact to affect yield. Biotic conditions like crown diseases and environmental conditions, such as drought and soil fertility, can also affect the relationship of both stem numbers and plant numbers with yield.

The results from these two studies stress the importance of ongoing monitoring when making decisions about alfalfa stand productivity and rotation to other crops:
  • Monitor alfalfa forage yield over the life of the stand. Normally, forage yield declines after the first two years of production. Using yield data and costs of production will determine the changes in profitability.
  • Monitor the changes in alfalfa stem density, plant plant density, and plant height over the life of the stand. While stem and plant densities are imperfect predictors of future yields, they can provide a general guideline that along with yield data will allow for decision making.
  • Monitor the changes in alfalfa crown health over the life of the stand.


This work was supported by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, the Midwest Forage Association, and the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance.
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