Early Rains Aided Alfalfa Yields

Early 2015 Rains Aided Alfalfa Yields, Hurt Quality

Snow is generally good for alfalfa and other crops, but sometimes it can cause damage and reduce yields. (DTN file photo by Scott R Kemper)

OMAHA, Neb. (DTN) --Ample rains early in the 2015 alfalfa season resulted in excellent yields in some growing regions, but the rains also may have hurt quality.

"I would say most areas were at least 25% above average yield, and some areas were 50% above average yield," according to Dan Undersander, research and extension forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin. But despite the bountiful yields, Undersander said the forage quality is average or slightly lower, because good tonnage typically means that quality declines a little.

Most farmers in the Wisconsin area took their last cutting a little early, around the first of September. About four cuttings seemed to be the norm this season, except for some more northern areas, which may have produced only three. On the other hand, some southern areas may have gotten five or even six cuttings, Undersander said.

"We had very little late-fall cutting because of the high yields during the season," he said. "In fact, some farmers asked me what would happen if they didn't cut on Sept. 1. They were tired of making hay and haylage."

Dr. Bruce Anderson, professor of agronomy and extension forage specialist the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the extended fall harvest ran into October in the Nebraska area because of the late freeze and good late-season growth in some areas. Although yields fared better this year in general than in recent years, such late-harvest fields likely gave high quality, but fairly low tonnage, Anderson said.

Most Nebraska-area growers were able to get four cuttings unless they were severely delayed at the first of the season, and more than usual were able to even get five cuttings, he said.


Both Undersander and Anderson agree that there should be plenty of average-quality hay this winter, but dairy-quality hay may be in shorter supply.

Undersander said the spread between dairy-quality hay and average hay is the biggest he has ever seen, and that while prices for dairy quality hay will likely continue to rise, prices of average grade hay may not change a lot.

"It's going to depend a little bit on the weather, how cold it gets and how much and how long we have to feed," he said.

Anderson said he expects dairy producers might find high quality hay to come at a premium price. Milk price may be a limiting influence to that margin, forcing dairies to watch carefully what they spend for premium alfalfa, Anderson said.

"Dairies may need to settle for some of the medium quality, a step lower in terms of forage quality in order to find something they might consider more affordable," he said. "They may have to do some ration manipulation with some of the supplements like distillers grains, or use more corn silage to provide a bit more fiber."


Soil moisture is likely in good condition in most of the Midwest, but winter survival may depend on what effect El Nino has on stands. Colder winters mean alfalfa is more insulated from air temperatures by the snow and warmer winters are usually harder on alfalfa without that insulating benefit.

Undersander advises farmers with largely grass stands to graze off or mow off any stands over 6 inches tall. Grazing or mowing could avoid the risk of the stands lying down in snow and matting, which could lead to snow mold that can kill alfalfa.

Anderson said this fall, producers may want to consider their potential needs for winter annual weeds like mustards or penny grass, and apply some herbicide if needed.


DTN received end-of-season reports from alfalfa growers in several states.

- Crawford McFetridge from the Finger Lakes area of New York reported an average hay season, despite a slow start with too much rain all season long. The rain caused lesser quality on the first cutting, but good quality on the second, third and fourth cutting.

"We may be a little short on quantity, but nothing serious," he said. "There isn't much to be done differently next year if things improve on the market front. If not, there may be some (alfalfa) fields that might not be farmed next year."

Jeff Littrell farms near Chatfield, Minnesota, and reported that alfalfa growers in his area also had problems early on with rain.

"We had a devastating June. Quality was as bad as I've ever seen! But the yield was great," he said. Littrell said he had over 5.5 tons an acre in his first cutting, 2 tons an acre on his second cutting and was still waiting on his third cutting due to rains.

Littrell described his yields were stellar, but said quality was "in the tank."

"As of right now we are behind soil moisture, and even if we get 2 inches of rain, we will still be short by 3 inches, considering we were in a positive until early September," he said.

- John Moore near Manhattan, Illinois, in the northeastern portion of the state said that his season also started out very wet. So much so, that he got very little quality hay on the first cutting because he was delayed for so long and had damage from rain and moisture.

Moore said h his last cutting was about October 20 but had some misfortune with that cutting. He said the readings from his barn moisture reader were in the 13 to 15% range, but what he stacked in the barn didn't get enough air and didn't keep.

"It was more like silage, so it was not good enough for all our customers that are horse owners," he said. "We sold it to one buyer who runs a few head of beef cattle and got about half price for it. So it wasn't a total loss; but it sure didn't help our profits any."

- Tom Crave who raises alfalfa for the 1,500-cow dairy that he runs with his brother near Waterloo, Wisconsin, said he was fortunate to have a really good growing season.

"We had a really good growing season -- no real extreme heat, nice weather through the summer, nice rains," he said. "Everything worked out well this summer. We had good yields due to the adequate rains, probably a little higher than normal."

Crave said he took his fourth and last cutting about the third week in August. Although some farmers in the area took a fifth cutting, Crave chose to leave the regrowth in the field to catch snow and winter over a little better.

He added that he is adding about 200 acres of alfalfa for next year for a total of 700 acres, as well as another 350 acres he buys from others growers that he chops to make haylage.

- Art Anderson, who farms about 1,800 acres of alfalfa in west central Nebraska near Arcadia, said he also had some challenges getting hay up for the first two cutting because of moisture. He took his fourth and final cutting October 10, adding that four cuttings are normal for his operation. Yields on his irrigated acres were average to above, but his dryland alfalfa was below normal on yields because of dry weather later in the summer.

Anderson added, "Our soil moisture for next season was looking pretty bad, but we got 3 inches of rain in the last week. The outlook may be looking pretty good now," he said.

Next season, Anderson said he is going to rotate some acres out of row crops and into about 20 to 25% more alfalfa acres.

"Alfalfa is making more money," he said. "We are kind of set up for alfalfa - in our position, alfalfa does better than row crops."

Cheryl Anderson can be reached at cheryl.anderson@dtn.com.