Forage on my mind

By Mike Rankin, Managing Editor
Mike Rankin

Mike Rankin
Winter offers a lot of time for reflection, and for the editor of a hay and forage magazine, a lot of that thinking is devoted to . . . well . . . hay and forage, at least until baseball season starts.

Lately, a lot of issues and concerns have surfaced in the forage world, so I thought I’d offer a rundown on a few of them that have consumed my modest amount of gray matter. Even though they may not all impact you directly, they should be on your internal radar, too.

Another drought

These past couple of years have been filled with information on drought reaction and planning. Drought conditions seem to be traversing the U.S. like the couple hell-bent on eating at every Cracker Barrel in the nation (Google it). Fortunately, drought likes to move around from year to year, and in 2022, the Southern Plains and western Midwest were subject to its wrath; it was the Northern Plains and Northwest region the previous year.

If I’ve learned nothing else in my less than illustrious agricultural career, it’s that drought years are bad, but a second consecutive drought year is a killer because excess forage inventories have been exhausted. Here’s hoping drought can find its way offshore in 2023, but be ready if it doesn’t.

More water woes

It’s one thing to not get rain when history dictates that you’re supposed to, but it’s an altogether different story when you rely on surface water for irrigation in the same way you rely on food for long-term survival. Yes, the recent deluge of rain and snow in the West is certainly beneficial; however, the water problems for those being served by the Colorado River and snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains isn’t going to be fixed by one good winter of moisture. Find out why this is the case in our “Water wars” article beginning on page 10. Millions of forage acres are being impacted.

Hay stocks and production

Yes, December 1 hay stocks were up in some areas that got hammered in 2021 and rebounded in 2022, but overall, the U.S. hay barn has been emptied to a level not seen since the early 1950s. Hay production was down again as well to the tune of 11% lower than just two years ago. Most of that production drop came from a decline in grass hay, although alfalfa has trended lower as well. The drought in 2022 hit some large hay-producing states pretty hard.

The current state of hay affairs, along with historically high input costs, does little to make one think that hay prices will retreat much in 2023. However, one good production year coupled with declining fertilizer prices could reverse the recent inventory trend. Even with higher input costs, hay has been a profitable crop. I’m not sure how high hay prices can go before even more users slam on the brakes and look to other alternatives or, in some cases, start producing their own hay.

Alfalfa at a crossroads

There hasn’t been a lot of great alfalfa news lately, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. It remains the dominant forage crop in a large chunk of the U.S. and actually seems to be gaining popularity in some Southeastern states.

By now, most people have heard that a few major alfalfa breeding companies are either putting a halt on new variety development or looking to eliminate their alfalfa programs altogether. This could be good news for the couple that remain, but long term, there will be less private infrastructure for alfalfa improvement. Perhaps there will be opportunities for public institutions to develop alfalfa breeding programs. All this is happening with the recent good news that China is opening up its borders to the importation of glyphosate-resistant alfalfa.

Forage gurus

We’ve lost a lot of forage expertise in recent years, and that is worrisome. There have been two more recent retirements of extension forage specialists in Ohio and West Virginia, and a number more in the forage academic world are knocking on retirement’s door. It is heartening to see a few positions being filled or in the process of being filled, but they all are coming after long gaps in time without a forage person in place. Forage research and extension positions are critical to the industry if bright, young forage workers are to be trained and developed.

So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about these past couple of months. Fortunately, baseball season will be here soon.

Happy foraging!

This article appeared in the February 2023 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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