In order to understand the factors that influence lucerne hay quality and yield, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the biology of the lucerne plant. As the plant matures, the stems become more lignified in order to support the plant as it grows heavier during flowering. The stems, rather than the leaves, also begin to make up a greater proportion of the plant. This results in higher yield, but lower quality.
The lucerne also takes longer to dry due to the thicker stems, which in turn causes increased leaf loss due to shattering (lucerne leaves dry out three to five times faster than the stems). The main objective of lucerne hay production should therefore be to strive for the ideal balance between yield and quality.
The extent of reduction in yield and quality of lucerne hay depends on heat, irrigation, cutting schedule, harvest management and weather patterns. Of these, harvest management has by far the greatest impact on forage quality. Moreover, it is under the direct control of the grower. Producing lucerne hay for maximum yield and quality requires an understanding of how environmental and management factors influence crop growth and development.
The smallest amount of untimely rain can postpone the harvesting process, causing rapidly maturing lucerne to decline in quality very rapidly. Rain just before cutting slows down drying after cutting, as the soil remains moist despite sunshine and low humidity. However, rain before harvesting is only one potential problem. Even larger difficulties can occur when it rains after cutting.
Firstly, rain increases the amount of time needed for lucerne to dry, as well as the number of times the lucerne is mechanically handled, which encourages further leaf loss. Rain on lucerne in the drying process can decrease the amount of leaves retained from 62% to 38%. Partially dried lucerne that is exposed to rain loses much of its nutrients due to leaching, as most are water-soluble.
Secondly, high humidity with no wind poses a problem, as it hinders evaporation from the windrow by leaving no room for replacement of saturated air with unsaturated air. The additional drying time caused by rain also leads to damage to lucerne regrowth due to shading from the windrow.
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