Forage Outlook Cloudy

Dry Conditions, Alfalfa Weevils Raise Big Questions for High Plains Forage Producers

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Forage producers in the High Plains face many obstacles this growing season. A lack of moisture and a higher-than-normal alfalfa weevil population top the list of concerns. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The severe drought gripping much of the High Plains continues to cloud the outlook for forages in 2023. And without more moisture soon, production could suffer.

Kyle Krier, who raises several different crops including alfalfa near Claflin, Kansas, said it has been so dry this spring he is not sure if some of his dryland alfalfa fields will grow enough to get a first cutting.

"Established (alfalfa) stands look alright with some growth, but the newer stands are really struggling right now and are maybe 2 or 3 inches tall," Krier told DTN.

As one might imagine, the outlook for those regions with some moisture is much more favorable than in the areas without. Another year with limited forage production is not what anyone wants, according to growers and forage specialists.


Forage growers face a challenging beginning of the growing season in many locations, according to Jeff Jackson, alfalfa and forage specialist for CROPLAN WinField United. Jackson, who is based in Plattsburg, Missouri, covers an area north into the Dakotas.

Based on what he's seen during his travels, Jackson said alfalfa in his territory is generally about 10 to 14 days behind normal growth patterns. This is especially true in the Dakotas where growth was severely delayed due to lower temperatures.

North Dakota State University Extension said in late April that the grazing season in the state might be a month delayed, thanks to the fall drought and delayed spring growth due to colder-than-normal temperatures (…).

Farther south into Nebraska and Kansas, alfalfa growth has been more evident, at least in those areas with enough moisture for the plants to begin to grow. He has seen 6 to 8 inches of growth in some of these areas.

"The insect pressure is high already with alfalfa weevils really bad in these areas," Jackson said. "I have had growers in Kansas already treat their alfalfa twice."

Weevils lay their eggs in the fall and spring and, as temperatures rise, the insects come to life and begin to feed on plants. Temperatures are important for egg hatching, as eggs laid higher on plants will emerge before eggs laid closer to the cooler soil surface, he said.

Jackson said alfalfa growers need to get out and scout their fields for the damaging pests. They should spray pesticides when needed to protect the alfalfa crop.

Krier, the Kansas alfalfa grower, agreed there is high alfalfa weevil pressure in his central Kansas location. He has sprayed for the insect twice already.

"They are just terrible this spring," Krier said.

While pests are high on his list of concerns, the larger issue this growing season for him is having enough moisture to produce an alfalfa crop. With just 20% of normal rainfall up to this point on his Barton County farm, it's having an obvious negative effect on the crop.

The last growing season was dry because of the drought, which shortened the number of tons Krier produced and sold. But it was still a profitable enterprise, as high hay prices helped his bottom line, he said.

However, the outlook for this growing season is much darker, as production might suffer even more if the dry weather sticks around another year.

Normally, in early May, he prepares equipment for the first cutting of alfalfa. However, with the dry and cool conditions so far this spring, it might still be about 30 days before any crop is ready to be harvested.

Krier has some concern about whether there is enough moisture to even get a first cutting of alfalfa at this point. If it is so dry and the first cutting is removed, he is worried about secondary growth for a second cutting, he said.

"Do we cut, or do we sit and wait for it to rain? I don't know what the answer is," he said.


Jackson said even if these drought-ravaged areas were to see normal precipitation this growing season, it would probably take two growing seasons for the forage market to return to more normal conditions, both in terms of supply and prices. The volume of forage supply is "crazy" low, he said.

On top of this, all the various weather challenges the last three springs have been uncooperative in getting forages established. Many growers would rather plant corn or soybeans and not have the additional tasks involved with producing a forage crop, he said.

These issues have reduced the forage supply by 10% to 20% compared to past years. Jackson believes many livestock producers/forage growers will turn to summer annuals to boost their forage supplies.

"With hay stock so low, I think it will be a huge season for summer annuals to be planted," Jackson said. "Everyone needs to plant forages."

Krier agreed and thought the many acres of failed winter wheat could be viable options for summer annuals, which could be used for forages. If not forage, maybe producers would plant milo, beans or even corn.

While there would be some concerns about handling crops insurance and another crop, the lack of forage will likely push some to attempt to grow some sort of forage, he said.

But, first, the weather needs to cooperate.

"We are going to need a boatload of rain soon," Krier said.


While more northern areas of the High Plains have their production issues, the southern part of the region might return to closer to normal.

Vanessa Corriher-Olson, professor and forage specialist for Texas AgriLife Extension, said while west Texas is somewhat dry, eastern and central Texas are in good condition with recent moisture. No drought is found in these areas, she said.

Much like forages in the northern areas of the High Plains, Texas forages are also slightly delayed this growing season. Once again, this was due to subfreezing temperatures during the winter months, she said.

"A majority of the state was in a drought last year and I would say for those of us not in drought, things are better than last year," Corriher-Olson said.

One lasting effect from dry conditions on Texas' forage could be the weakened stands of forage crops. High fertilizer prices last growing season caused some producers to forgo fertilizing their crops. As a result, there are some weaker stands and increased weed populations, she said.

Corriher-Olson said producers also may have overgrazed their forages last year during the severe drought. These forages will take longer to recover even if they do have some moisture this growing season.

"With weaker stands following a drought and likely decreased fertility, I expect producers will see larger populations of weeds and potentially species they haven't seen on their property before," she said.

Corriher-Olson said weed seeds can lie dormant for an unknown amount of time and will take advantage of open space and moisture.

The supply of forages in Texas remains tight because of the drought limiting production in 2022. Producers are anxious, as they want to produce more tons this year to compensate for losses last year, she said.

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Russ Quinn