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An unstable outlook for alfalfa in Wisconsin

By Progressive Dairy Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 10 March 2020

In Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, the weather cycle continues to cause concern and unrest coming off of the extremely wet 2019 season, creating an unstable outlook for alfalfa in 2020.

This is an unwelcomed projection in Wisconsin, where hay inventories are estimated at 1.77 million tons (USDA-NASS, December 2019). Though up 1% from the previous year, 2018 inventories were already down 34%.

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“The reality is we’re still behind and this is going to be scarier this spring,” says Kevin Jarek, an extension agent who covers crops, soils and horticulture in northeast Wisconsin through the University of Wisconsin (UW), Division of Extension – Outagamie County.

The weather patterns and undesirable growing conditions have not helped the cause.

“We are in the seventh year of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] identifies as an observed seven to 10-year cycle,” Jarek says. The most recent NOAA maps show a greater chance for above normal precipitation for April, May and June.

What that means for dairy farmers is there’s a good chance 2020 will be another cold, wet spring, thus creating more stress and challenges around growing and harvesting alfalfa.

Unless weather conditions change dramatically, Jarek says we are likely going to deal with similar conditions to April and May of 2019, which could mean the first cutting of alfalfa will be delayed once again. Uncertainty also surrounds the level of winter kill going on in the fields. In the worst-case scenario, the effects of compaction during harvest combined with the mid-winter warm-up in December could mean trouble for those plants sitting in over-saturated soils. On the other hand, warmer than expected temperatures may be just enough to help struggling plants by providing the growing degree days they need.

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“If temperatures turn out to be warmer, it will help any of the grain crops we can mud in [i.e., corn and beans], but if we can't get into the alfalfa fields to cut or harvest because they are too wet, the quality declines,” Jarek says.

Those delayed harvest dates can do a number on feed quality as we move toward the end of May.

“We can lose 5 to 7 points or more of relative feed quality (RFQ) on days when we are accumulating significant growing degree days,” Jarek says. “With 35 to 40 percent our alfalfa yield in Wisconsin usually harvested in first cutting, the risk of being stuck with feed well past maturity is real.”

However, quality and quantity can be a tradeoff. Jarek references retired UW forage agronomist Dan Undersander, who indicated approximately 150 pounds of dry matter per acre, per day can be accumulated the last week of May. Data suggests low-lignin or enhanced alfalfa varieties may do best under these conditions, as they have a longer harvest window and hold a higher relative feed quality.

Last year, Wisconsin alfalfa fields were already compromised coming off of winter, prompting producers to look toward alternative forages to fill in the holes. Agronomists, seed dealers and independent crop consultants in the state reported that a majority of established alfalfa stands in Wisconsin were “patched” with sorghum-sudangrass, ryegrass and improved tall fescue varieties. When managed correctly, Jarek says the sorghum-sudangrass mixes yielded a quality forage option. However, the most common mistake he saw with this crop was cutting it too short.

“Regardless of other crops in the mix, you need to increase the cutting height to a minimum of 6 inches,” Jarek says. Further, he advises selecting a brown mid-rib variety to increase quality.

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Alfalfa stands mixed with small grain crops last year may face a more complex set of challenges in 2020. Unseasonably cold weather and snow cover in October killed the top growth on late-seeded fields, resulting in biomass laying down and covering the newly established alfalfa. However, a December warm-up prevented full dormancy from occurring. It was warm enough to induce new shoot development at the base of the plants, but that was followed by a covering of ice and snow.

“The adults went to bed. It’s the kids that have been staying up all night,” Jarek says.

 Jarek encourages producers to monitor alfalfa fields this spring, as well as accurately define their feed and forage inventory to determine what they have and what they need. Tools for doing this are available at the UW extensionend mark 

Kevin Jarek presented at the “Meeting Tomorrow’s Feeding Challenges Today” workshop hosted by the University of Wisconsin Extension on Feb. 28, in Brillion, Wisconsin.

References omitted but available upon request.

Peggy Coffeen
  • Peggy Coffeen

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  • Progressive Dairy
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