Evaluate Forage Stands for Winter Injury

March 18, 2013
ICM News

By Stephen K. Barnhart, Department of Agronomy

Winter-dormant perennial forage plants remain dormant as long as temperatures in the ‘crown’ area, or upper few inches of the soil, remain between about 0° and 35° F.  Snow cover and residual vegetative cover help to insulate the soil and stabilize soil and crown temperatures. Under ideal conditions, as spring temperatures warm through March, the plants ‘break dormancy’ and regrow normally into the spring. Winter injury and winter kill can occur under several conditions: if there is no snow cover and crown temperatures go much below 0° F;  when mid-winter ‘warm spells’ cause the plants to ‘break dormancy’ early and are then more susceptible to late-winter cold crown temperatures; and,  when plants are submerged in frozen, ponded water in low-lying areas during the winter.

This winter, the crown temperatures have likely not been cold enough for direct cold injury, even without snow cover. While day temperatures have been warmer than normal for short periods through February and early March, night temperatures have, hopefully, been cold enough to prevent the plants from breaking dormancy. A significant concern are the localized, frozen, ponded areas. How well did they handle this winter? It is time to go find out.  


Stand evaluation

When evaluating alfalfa in late winter for winter injury, consider both the number of plants per square foot and, for alfalfa, the age of the stand. Crown and root diseases also have a major effect on stand reduction of legumes, so plants should be checked for dead, dying or diseased crown and root tissue.  Winter-injured plants may survive satisfactorily, but are often slow to recover in spring, so a quick decision to destroy a winter injured stand is not recommended.
Wait until the spring regrowth is about 3 to 4 inches high. Select random stand count sites. Check at least one 1-square-foot site for every 5 to 10 acres. Dig up all of the plants in the 1-square-foot area. Inspect for new growth and the crown and buds to determine if the tissue is still alive. Then count the number of live plants per square foot. Use Table 1 to begin your rating of the stand. Next, split the taproots and evaluate their general health. The core of a healthy taproot is firm and creamy white. Damaged or dying taproots are yellowish brown to chocolate brown in color and watery or dry and fibrous in texture. Only healthy plants will contribute significantly to yield, so if the taproots are more than 50 percent diseased, reduce your initial stand count accordingly.

Table 1.  Age of stand and rating of winter survival.




Consider Reseeding


Plants per square foot

Year after seeding


8 to 12

Less than 8



5 to 6

Less than 5



4 to 5

Less than 4

4 and older**


3 to 4

Less than 3

* Healthy alfalfa plants in thin stands often produce more individual stems per plant and compensate some in yield potential.

** If 50 percent or more of the plants have crown or root rot, consider reseeding.


Plan your management this season, based on your stand evaluation.

  • If stands are winter-injured, but will be harvested this season, allow plants to mature to 10 to 25 percent bloom or later, before cutting. 
  • Increase cutting height to 3 to 4 inches.
  • Maintain good fertilizer and insect management.
  • If stands are severely winter injured, and you have incurred a significant loss to planned stored forage, plan to reestablish a new hay field this spring and begin to plan for any needed supplemental harvested and stored forage needed until the new seeding becomes adequately productive.

Assess red clover stands similarly.    

Overwintering perennial forage grasses often survive better than winterhardy legumes. However, orchardgrass and ryegrasses are more susceptible to winter injury. Visual evaluation of grass regrowth and vitality of crown tissue is suggested when evaluating winter survival of pastures.

Reseeding in hayfields or pastures might be needed. Reseeding more alfalfa into or immediately after a two year old or older stand is not recommended.  Overseeing or drilling grasses or red clover into thin or winter damaged stands should be done from now through April. Delaying seeding increases the risk of weed and surviving forage plant competition and seedling loss to increasingly dry and hot soil surface conditions of early summer.

Iowa State University Extension Publications for further information:


Stephen K. Barnhart is an extension forage specialist. You can e-mail him at sbarnhar@iastate.edu.


Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Integrated Crop Management News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on March 18, 2013. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.