Forage Outlook

Forage Producers Face Some Challenges Following Warmer Winter

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Forage specialists report forages generally appear to be in good shape across the country as the growing season begins. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Ron Tombaugh is seeing his alfalfa fields green up. The Streater, Illinois, hay and straw producer said while it is too early to know exactly what is in store for forage crops this growing season, he does know conditions appear good for early season growth.

"We haven't seen a lot of heaving, and we had plenty of moisture this spring," Tombaugh told DTN. "We won't see a lot of growth until night temperatures stay over 40 degrees (Fahrenheit)."

Forage specialists report forages generally appear to be in good shape across the country as the growing season begins. However, there could be some issues with winter injury and possible problems with increased numbers of pests and weeds with the warmer winter weather. There could also be drought issues in some parts of the country.


There have been early reports of troubled alfalfa across the Midwest this winter, according to Dan Wiersma, DuPont Pioneer alfalfa business manager.

"I think we will see a moderate level of winter injury in the upper Midwest," Wiersma said.

Other alfalfa-growing regions, especially those farther to the east, could also see issues with winter injury, but it is too early to know for sure, Wiersma said.

Lack of uniform and vigorous regrowth of alfalfa shoots, together with decay of crowns and roots, are obvious signs of winter injury, Wiersma said. While this may be present in newer stands, it's more typically found in older stands of alfalfa that are more than three or four years old.

The moderate amount of winter injury and winterkill this spring is due to the weather during the fall and winter months, he said. Many areas had wet fields during the fall, and alfalfa doesn't like to be in wet soils during the fall growth period.

Wide-ranging, mid-winter temperatures are the main reason why some alfalfa may be subject to more winterkill, he said.

Wiersma recommends farmers take a walk in their alfalfa fields to see if they have issues with winterkill. While walking, take a look at shoot regrowth and specifically look at the crown and roots, keeping an eye out for brown or black areas in the roots.

As the alfalfa plant grows in the spring, shoots should be emerging from all sides of the crown in a uniform pattern. Damage could have been done to the plants if only one side has shoots emerging, he said.

Tombaugh, the Illinois producer, said while it is still too early to determine what condition the alfalfa crop will be going into the first cutting, which is still several weeks away, he has not seen many signs of winter injury in his area. While he said he would have liked to have seen 6 to 10 inches of snow cover this winter -- which didn't happen -- he thinks winter injury could be a minimal issue for him this year.


Growers should assess their stands, Wiersma said.

Four to five plants per square foot and 50 to 55 stems per square foot will allow the grower to obtain the full yield potential, he said. Stands from 35 to 40 shoots per square foot could still be saved, but when there are under 35 shoots per square foot, it might be time to terminate the stand.

"Every farmer has different levels of stand loss and yield potential they can accept," he said. "Not everything is lost if you have to rotate a stand of alfalfa, as you get a nice nitrogen benefit going to corn after alfalfa."


Wiersma said warm winter weather could also lead to possible increases in alfalfa pests this growing season.

The alfalfa weevil and the potato leaf hopper are the leading alfalfa pests. However, it's still too early to know for sure if higher populations of these two pests will be found in alfalfa fields, he said. Again, it's important for producers to monitor regrowth to stay on top of pest issues, he said.

A warmer winter could also lead to some issues with early-growing weeds, according to Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Texas A&M AgriLife forage specialist based at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Overton, Texas.

Weather conditions have already affected how many Texas forage producers have tended to their crops so far this spring.

"Warm weather has sped the growth of weeds," Corriher-Olson said. "We have had a pretty windy spring, so applying herbicides to control these weeds has not been an easy task for many forage growers."

The USDA Weekly Crop Progress report released on Monday, April 10, showed some areas of dryness in west Texas, the Panhandle region and northeast Texas. But despite these lingering issues, 75% of the pasture and rangeland was rated good to fair.

Corriher-Olson said Texas forage growers' top challenges this year are tough economics and possible dry weather.

Growers need to make sound economic decisions and need to remain profitable during these tight economic times, she said. Best management decisions need to be made in all aspects of forage production, including weeds, pests and fertilizer.

Producers should also be prepared for some dryness during the growing season in Texas, especially in June, July and August. While Corriher-Olson's home region in eastern Texas has seen some moisture this spring, some areas of the expansive Lone Star State are facing dryness.

"No one can be prepared for severe drought conditions we have seen in the past like in 2011, but a little planning can help out a lot," she said.


Tombaugh said hay prices this winter have been fairly stable to perhaps a little soft. Abundant rains during the 2016 growing season allowed much hay to be produced, although quality issues may be a concern.

"There is some demand out there for top-end dairy-quality hay," Tombaugh said. "I already contracted all of mine out."

Dairy farmers have seen milk prices recover to the point they had some money to spend on top-quality hay, he said.

One issue he is watching closely is the recent announcement that 75 Wisconsin dairy producers are losing their milk buyers on May 1. He has quite a few hay customers in that state, and this situation could have an effect on hay prices there, he said.

Another wildcard with hay prices is how much of the supply of hay is sent to the Southern Plains for victims of the March wildfires. Ranchers in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle lost livestock, homes, facilities, equipment and forage supplies.

While there appears to be a reasonable supply of hay currently, what happens with these ranchers having to feed hay long term could alter the supply of hay, Tombaugh said.

"I took some hay and supplies out there (the first week of April) and folks were talking they would have to feed hay to their cattle for a year," he said. "While it may take the more low-end quality of hay out, how does this affect the overall hay supply? We don't know for sure."

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Russ Quinn