The year 2013 proved to be a challenging growing season with a cold, wet spring that lasted well into May. In addition to the excessive rainfall and cold spring, producers in some parts of the state experienced alfalfa winter-kill which decimated their alfalfa supplies. When July and August came with nary a drop of rain, it restricted forage supplies even more. Talking with producers from around the state, it seems that a comfortable excess of forage is the exception rather than the rule. Producers who are looking for ways to maximize forage production on their acreage have a few options.
Planting a forage with an early harvest date might be the right option for some producers to provide the fastest remediation to short supplies. Some mixes to consider could include an oat/field pea or barley/field pea mix for a nice chopped haylage. Adding field peas to oats or barley can be expected to raise protein by 3 to 5%. By harvesting no later than the early boot stage, a high quality forage that is worthy of a dairy ration can be expected. Pea/oatlage or pea/barlage that is harvested too late will have lower feed value but should be acceptable for dry cow or heifer rations. After chopping, this crop could be followed by silage corn.
For those producers who may not need a quick bump in their forage inventory, the best option may be to increase silage or alfalfa acres. With current corn grain prices and even corn futures looking bleak, producers should run the production numbers for their individual farm. Find out what it costs you to produce a bushel of corn. With prices where they are currently, and where they are projected to be at harvest time of 2014, you may be able to purchase your grain corn for less than it would cost you to grow it. If this is the case for your farm, what other options would you have to make more of a profit off those corn acres if you could buy the corn instead of growing it? Cash cropping could be something to consider. In some areas of the state, it might still be possible to secure a contract for growing a canning vegetable crop. Maybe it makes sense to grow some extra alfalfa acres and wisely market some quality alfalfa hay.
Currently, the market for good quality alfalfa is still strong. Soybean futures are still relatively strong, so if you have a good production history of soybeans, they could be the right fit for your operation. Every producer's numbers will be different, so there is no right answer for everyone. The onus is on the producer to analyze their crop budgets, production history, and crop futures prices to determine the best course of action.
Producers may also want to look into options to prevent forage shortages in the future. Double cropping can allow producers to harvest two forage crops off a given acreage in one year. This can be especially helpful if a producer simply does not have more acres to commit to forage production. Fall planted winter wheat or winter triticale is one of the earliest crops to green up in spring and can be chopped early, allowing time to follow with corn silage. There is also some research out of Wisconsin suggesting an option of following small grain harvest with a seeding of oats for grazing or chopping in fall. Oftentimes spring and/or fall manure application is possible with these scenarios as well. For producers who have limited acres to spread manure, double cropping can also offer some remediation for nutrient loading by adding one more crop and additional tons of matter removed from the field.
The bright news is several options still exist to increase forage supplies for this year. Producers can benefit from consulting with both their nutritionist and their agronomist on how different cropping options might work for their farming operation. For more information on forage research at the University of Minnesota, visit www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/forages or contact your local county Extension Educator.