Alfalfa May be Delayed by Rain

Rains May Help Alfalfa Stands in the Long Run

Farmers have to keep weather in mind when growing, and harvesting, alfalfa. (DTN file photo by Pat Hill)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The excessive rains plaguing many alfalfa-growing regions may turn out to be both a curse and a blessing.

Some alfalfa growers are faced with wet fields or cut hay that is too moist to bale. Wet conditions are also leading to problems with quality loss.

In Midwestern areas such as Nebraska, the major effect on alfalfa growers has been delays in first cutting, which could lead to some loss in quality, according to Bruce Anderson, professor of agronomy and extension forage specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Anderson said that in Nebraska and the surrounding areas, growers either have cut or are about to take the first cutting, as the first cutting usually happens right around the first part of June. So those who waited to take that first cutting may not have been affected to a great degree.

Those who have already cut their first hay are likely looking at some losses, he said.

"Anybody who had hay down is probably now looking at a soggy mess -- real poor quality stuff that's still in windrows. Those are going to be big problems, because those windrows are probably smothering the alfalfa that is underneath them," Anderson said. "That's going to result in some real challenges going forward in terms of deciding how to deal with some of those poor stands or weedy spots in fields."

In northern areas such as Wisconsin, the rains have not hurt growers making haylage or baleage, according to Dan Undersander, research and extension forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A lot of the Upper Midwest states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and also New York are putting up alfalfa haylage with reasonable quality, Undersander said.

But, it is a different story for those attempting to cut hay in commercial hay-producing states like the Dakotas and Nebraska. It takes three to five days for hay to dry, and there have not been many periods that long without rain in those areas.

"With delayed cutting, the quality of hay goes down about 3.6 points of relative forage quality per day per ton. Others have cut, and then the alfalfa got rained on and the quality has gone down," Undersander said.

Undersander added there is a big hay strip across Minneapolis east to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and then across Michigan that typically cuts around June 1. Some growers will be doing that, and some will be delayed because of frost. First cuttings across northern Iowa/southern Wisconsin and into Indiana, are generally taken around May 20. Much of that has been cut and put up, he said.

GOOD NEWS

"The good news is that despite some loss in quality from the first cutting in some areas, the surplus moisture will likely boost alfalfa yields and quality for the rest of the season," Anderson said.

"All the moisture in the ground should mean good potential yields and growth for rest of the year. That's something to look forward to," Anderson said. "There's certainly a lot of opportunities for some of that to occur.

"The other good news is that there hasn't been any extremely warm temperatures yet, so there has not been a big influx of leaf diseases develop yet," Anderson said, adding that the possibility of leaf diseases could still develop rapidly with warm weather.

STRATEGIES FOR WET HAY

Anderson and Undersander both offered some tips for handling wet alfalfa.

Anderson said there is not much growers can do until there is some sunny, dry weather. However, he stressed that once cutting or fieldwork is possible again, growers should get any already-harvested alfalfa off the ground as quickly as possible. Those who already have windrows lying in fields should get the alfalfa off as quickly as they can.

If alfalfa has not yet been cut, Anderson suggested growers take a good look at their alfalfa plants first and possibly raise their cutting height.

"If a lot of new shoots are developing from the crown, avoid cutting those new shoots off and forcing the plant to start regrowth all over again," Anderson said.

Anderson added that after heavy rains, growers should also be on the lookout for aggressive weed growth after cutting and see if a timely herbicide application may be beneficial in certain fields, especially those where the hay is being targeted towards a high quality hay market.

Anderson also said that growers may want to identify how the first cutting hay is going to be used, especially if it is going to be of a different quality than normal. Growers should decide what type of animals or what market can they sell to for the quality of hay.

Growers waiting for fields to dry may also want to make sure their equipment is ready to go to avoid down time once warmer, dry weather occurs.

Undersander added that there has also been some poor stands from new alfalfa seedings this spring.

"A lot of those stands were seeded in mid-April, then we had some pretty cool weather," Undersander said. "Alfalfa doesn't grow much in temperatures less than 40 to 46 degrees. I think the alfalfa just didn't grow, and then maybe got diseased."

Undersander advised growers to go look at their new seedings and make sure that they have at least 20 plants per square foot.

"If not, think about either seeding a grass into it or reseeding alfalfa into it, depending on the potential for moisture," he said. "If growers can't depend on moisture, they should seed into that alfalfa this fall to thicken the stand."

FROST DAMAGE

Undersander said there was a fairly severe frost 10 days ago that has affected yields in Minnesota, Wisconsin and portions of Michigan.

The frost killed the terminal meristems or growing points. In areas receiving frost damage that were close to harvest, Undersander said growers should go in and harvest the alfalfa. It may not be as tall or yield as well, but the quality may still be good.

In areas further north where the alfalfa is shorter -- like central portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and into Michigan -- growers will have to wait for the axillary meristems.

"The alfalfa will put out new shoots from the juncture of the leaves and the old stem. So it won't get as tall, but will still be high quality," Undersander said.

For stands damaged by frost, Undersander suggested that if stands were 14 to 16 inches when frost occurred and the terminal meristems were killed, growers should wait and let it grow. Even though the stem will stop growing, the plant will start putting out axillary stems from every leaf juncture below that. That growth will cause the plants to appear much bushier, instead of just having one tall stem.

GROWER REPORTS

Jeff Littrell (eastern Minnesota): Our son's new organic seeding is excellent. He expects to get oats off and get one cutting. We're looking at one of the best new seedings I've seen and our son can't believe how well it looks even with all the rain.

Phil Carter (western Michigan): No storms here. Several of the big dairies have started haying. Great weather for it.

Clayton Kline (northern Missouri): First cutting is being chopped or made into baleage in between showers. No dry hay being put up anywhere around here yet.

Keith Landis (northern Illinois): We mowed all of our good quality dairy hay -- chopped and bagged without rain along with other acres, which were round baled, all amounting to a little more than half our hay acres. Alfalfa had good yields. Threats of rain next week and college graduation this weekend will delay more mowing.

Crawford McFetridge (Finger Lakes area of New York state): The alfalfa here in New York looks good, but it is on the short side for first cutting. It's been more than two weeks since we have had rain of any kind. Quality is good, just about three-fourths of the usual crop. Harvest is going on, though some are holding off to maybe catch some rain. A lot of dry hay made instead of silos filled.

Doug Zillinger (north central Kansas): We have had 12 inches of rain since April 15. It has not hurt the alfalfa yet, we just can't get in the field to harvest. Conditions are excellent if we can get some harvest weather. We will start cutting Monday if the weather holds. The moisture could hurt quality if it keeps raining, and I don't switch to a chopper instead of baling. I might look for a chopper crew just to get done and lessen the weather element.

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

(BAS/SK)