Forage Road Trip - June 23, 2015

By Hay and Forage Grower

Visits to Wisconsin, Southern California, Vermont

by Dan Undersander
Extension Forage Agronomist
University of Wisconsin-Madison

New seedings this year were up, in part because of winterkill. In some areas across central Wisconsin and Minnesota, the soil temperatures got low enough (more than 13°F) this past winter due to the lack of snow cover to kill some alfalfa plants. A second, and more severe, cause of stand loss occurred on clayey soils where the cool spring (freezing nights and 40°F-plus days) caused heaving that pushed alfalfa crowns out of the ground, in some cases over 4 inches. Plants pushed out of the ground over 1 inch generally have broken taproots and will die over summer. Immediate replacement of stands heaved over 1 inch is recommended.

The cool spring also resulted in slowed alfalfa growth (of both new seedings and established stand). Some fields were somewhat yellow (and purplish) due to the cool weather.

First cutting generally went well in Wisconsin. Growth (and yield) was down slightly due to the cool weather through the later part of the growth cycle, but much haylage was put up without rain and is of high quality. There was little lodging due to the shortness of many stands, though some did occur, especially in the southern part of the state.

Alfalfa weevil pressure was low and little spraying was needed.

Second cutting is underway as of June 17 in the southern part of the state. Much was put up at the end of that week when the sun shined.

by Dan Putnam
Extension Forage Agronomist
University of California-Davis

Southern California: The historically severe (termed “exceptional” by U.S. authorities) drought is the key worry for farmers this year, now in its fourth year. Farmers with previously secure water access have found themselves once again forced to make very hard decisions about what crops to keep and which to let go. Much greater dependence upon well water versus surface waters, and wells are hurting. Similar to last year, acreage is down, and many growers will likely irrigate their alfalfa only part of the year, moving water from alfalfa and rice to orchards, vineyards, and vegetables, where deficit irrigation is not as feasible. Municipalities and fish will also be given high priorities.

Quality hay is hard to find, with many of the spring harvests lower in quality than normal, and now that hot temperatures have hit most of the Central Valley, quality hay is much more difficult to produce. High-quality hay still fetches good prices, but Fair quality hay fell below $200 per ton for the first time since 2010, and there is a wide spread between high- and low-quality hay prices. Early blue alfalfa aphid pressure was severe in many areas, though not as severe as in 2014; nevertheless it has been a key pest problem this year statewide but in Southern California especially. Stem nematode continues to infect Sacramento Valley farms in early spring.

Corn silage acreage is down significantly, and many silage growers are planting sorghum silage, which requires less irrigation water. Dairies are experiencing low milk prices this summer, in the $14 per cwt. range, well below the cost of production and a significant decline from the $23 per cwt. range a year ago. Diaries are feeding close to 8.5 pounds of alfalfa hay per cow per day, a record low number presumably due to the lower prices of corn and commodities these days, with rolled corn going for $190 per ton and Premium alfalfa delivered over $260 per ton.

Overall exports from Western ports were down in 2014, due mostly to curtailment of Mideast orders, but China increased alfalfa imports in 2014 30 percent over 2013 in spite of the troubles with rejected loads due to trace GMO presence and the U.S. dock strike. China is now the largest importer of U.S. alfalfa, with Japan continuing its high demand for grassy and alfalfa hays. Exports are down 5 percent from last year, but still California port exports were over 600,000 tons during the first four months of 2015. Organic demand for hay is high given the large premium for organic milk to dairy farmers, and demand has typically outstripped supply. The record-setting drought has continued to curtail alfalfa production, and all eyes are focused on fall rains, which may mitigate the situation. Good news came to Southern California and Arizona with rains that helped the Colorado Basin but, of course, ruined some of the eight to nine hay harvests.

by Heather Darby
Extension Agronomist
University of Vermont

Early spring dry conditions were great for getting the corn in the ground, but recent prolonged wet weather is taking its toll on forage crops in New England. Currently, early planted corn is ready for topdress of nitrogen but very few are able to get equipment into the fields for application. Some fields have been completely saturated with water for over a week, and the corn is at jeopardy of dying. Many farms were able to squeak in the their first cut of perennial forage before the rain began, but yields were very low with reports of 50 percent of optimum from many farmers. Farmers that finished first cut before the rain were not able to get manure applied to those fields but still hope for a better second cut. A number of our farms that were not so lucky are still trying to harvest off the first crop between storms. Soils are being badly damaged because of these actions. We are hoping for dry weather.