We're Going To Be Short On Good Forage This Year

Winterkill and wet weather have made it difficult to harvest high quality forages this spring. ( Farm Journal )

Weather hasn’t been kind to any farmer this spring. Corn and soybean plantings are way behind, and markets have reacted with expectations of a lower than expected harvest. Likewise, dairy producers from South Dakota to New York have found it difficult to get into fields and harvest first-crop alfalfa, pushing that harvest back as far as a week or more. 

The later harvest goes, the more mature the plants get. While yields will increase, quality will drop. Producers in the upper Midwest are already seeing the effects. Data on analysis of scissor cuttings that came through Rock River Labs in early May shows average relative feed value of 130, and those numbers won’t get any better as the crop stays growing in the field. 

 “A lot of dairy forage growing regions are just swamps,” says John Goeser, director of nutritional research and innovation with Rock River Labs. “We’re well behind with forage harvest so we’re at the point where we’re being forced to make some pretty tough decisions.”

One of those decisions is when to eventually get onto fields to start harvest. Anxiety grows as producers watch, through rain, alfalfa growing in the field but, patience needs to prevail.

“Driving on wet alfalfa fields will no doubt hurt yields and damage that field for future production,” says Randy Welch, national alfalfa agronomist with Croplan Winfield United. “Producers need to hold out and stay off until it’s dry enough to support equipment.”

Compounding the issue is winterkill. Wisconsin data shows that 43% of the alfalfa crop in Wisconsin suffered either moderate or severe winterkill, with northern Wisconsin experiencing as much as 75% severe conditions. But just like the wet weather, winterkill issues are widespread across the country as well and leave producers with questions on what to do with those fields. 

Decisions hinge on where you’re at with feed inventory, Goeser says. If you’re not in a panic for forage, cool season grasses could be a solution. If you’re desperate for feed, you’ll need something that yields faster, Goeser says, like forage oats, peas, or sorghum/sudan that can be ready in July.  

“If inventory is okay, the best plan may be to flip damaged alfalfa fields into corn for silage,” Welch says.  
The decision about what to do with existing alfalfa fields is more difficult, Goeser says. It comes down to taking advantage of open windows of no rain to get the crop harvested. 

“We know quality won’t be ideal, but we don’t want to wreck fields,” Goeser says. If producers are in a situation where they’re able to get hay cut, and the ground is dry, then they should do that. “Then if there is rain in the forecast, and you’ve got hay down, go ahead and chop it wetter rather than let it get rained on and get stuck with a lower quality crop.” That forage is already lower quality, and will be “an absolute nightmare” if it gets rained on, Goeser says. Be sure to use an inoculant or chemical preservative in that situation, Goeser recommends. 

With widespread winterkill and poor quality with first crop alfalfa, it’s likely most producers will be short on quality forage this year, Goeser says. That’s going to force nutritionists to think outside the box when it comes to putting together effective rations. 

“We’ll need some structural fiber in the diet, and that can come from straw and other forage sources that we don’t think about at times but we can bring them into the diet and match them up against more digestible fiber sources like corn gluten feed, soy hulls, wheat midds, beet pulp, whatever is available.”

Whatever the solution, the key is to try to minimize variation as much as possible, Goeser says.

“There’s a lot of ways to keep cows healthy and put calories in front of them,” he says. “Cows are flexible, but we will want to minimize variation with the feeds we put in front them to the extent that we can and put diets together that aren’t going to break the bank.”

What is your situation with first crop hay harvest? Let us know at https://www.dairyherd.com/poll/11