Midwest Alfalfa: Cold Spring Weather Slows Forage Crop – DTN

    Harvested alfalfa row. ©Debra L Ferguson

    Colder-than-average temperatures earlier this spring have delayed the growth of most forages in the Midwest, pushing back when these crops will be harvested. The lack of early season growth will most likely result in some alfalfa tonnage loss whenever the first cutting is taken.

    The cold conditions have also affected several other aspects of this year’s crop, including pests, weeds and even hay prices in general.


    The weather was cool in March and cold through the month of April, according to DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson.

    Average temperatures in much of the Midwest were around 5 to 10 degrees below normal over much of the region, with temperatures dropping 20 degrees below normal in parts of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Much of the north-central U.S. had the coldest April 1-18 period in the around 130 years of recordkeeping, going back to the 1880s, Anderson said.

    “This is an astounding departure from normal,” Anderson said.

    Anderson said the good news is the trend finally appears to be turning warmer. Temperatures over the next 10 days look to be tracking above to much above normal, which should be favorable for forage crop growth, he said.

    The cold spring has delayed farmers from planting forages such as alfalfa and cover crops and has delayed growth of existing forages, Karla Hernandez, South Dakota State University Extension forage field specialist, told DTN. Normally, alfalfa seeding occurs in April in South Dakota, but this spring it was pushed back to May, which is still an acceptable time to plant the crop, she said.

    Hernandez said alfalfa growers should assess their stands now to decide if a field should be shifted to another crop. Completing a stem count is one way growers can help to determine if a stand of alfalfa is still viable.

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    “In a square foot, count the number of stems of alfalfa,” she said. Fields with stem counts of 55 or more have a good stand and can continue to produce quality alfalfa.

    “Fields with a stem count of 40 to 55 stems per square foot have some losses, but could still produce a solid crop,” Hernandez said. Fields with 40 stems per square foot or less will affect hay quality, such as producing hay with lower crude protein levels.

    “Usually, after winter is the time to assess stand counts, but with the crop being delayed as the alfalfa greens up, this is a good time to see what is really out there,” Hernandez said.


    Farther south, it has been the same story this spring for Andrew Smidt, a farmer from Trumbull, Nebraska. He raises alfalfa and grass hay as well as corn and soybeans. He also has a cow-calf herd.

    Smidt estimates both his alfalfa and grass hay crops will be behind by a good two weeks. Normally, he starts to cut alfalfa in mid-May. This year, it is looking like he won’t start until the third week of May, he said.

    The uncooperative weather could also have an effect on alfalfa yields, at least with the first cutting.

    “I would guess we are going to see a half- to three-quarters-of-a-ton yield loss (per acre) because it has been so cold this spring,” Smidt told DTN.

    Cold weather in general slowed the growth, but Smidt said nighttime temperatures are ultimately behind slow-growing forage crops this spring in his central Nebraska region. Overnight temperatures dropped as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit in recent weeks, he said.

    But not all is lost with these cold temperatures, Smidt said.

    Yields should rebound after the first cutting for alfalfa, Smidt said. In addition, he hopes pest pressure from alfalfa weevils and potato leaf hopper could lessen some, as the insects were also subject to the cold conditions.

    “I’m more concerned with how dry it is already,” he said. “About half of our forage acres are dryland, and in dry years, we get two cuttings and that is it.”


    Forage crop conditions in the Eastern Corn Belt are also behind normal.

    Kimberly Meier, who farms near Ridott, Illinois, said the cold spring has had an effect on forage in her northern Illinois region. She estimated their alfalfa acres didn’t actually begin to grow until last week.

    Normally, they get the first cutting of alfalfa on a field with an older stand and then come back to spray the alfalfa and plant corn into the field. This year she doesn’t know if this will be possible with the alfalfa so delayed.

    Meier also pointed out that little of the first cutting in her home area of Stephenson County, which is along the Wisconsin border, is actually baled. Most hay in her area is chopped to sell to a number of dairies in the region. Some chop all of their alfalfa cuttings, while others chop some of each cutting and then bale some hay.

    “A lot of the smaller dairies don’t have their own chopper and rely on custom choppers,” said Meier, who does some custom chopping. “These choppers only come to regions at certain times, so if they come on May 15, that is when they will cut your alfalfa, so yields are going to be considerably less.”

    Meier, who also sells seed, said winterkill in the region appears to be a fairly small issue.

    Of the farmers who purchase seed from her, only one farmer bought alfalfa seed to replant due to winterkill, she said. With the rollercoaster temperatures and limited snowfall this winter, Meier said she was surprised winterkill was not worse.

    Jim Brown, a hay producer who lives near Lebanon, Indiana, said he estimated his forages were anywhere from 10 to 14 days behind normal with first cutting probably pushed back to around Memorial Day. Brown raises alfalfa, an alfalfa-orchard grass mix and timothy grass. He sells all his hay in small bales to many horse owners in the area, which is northwest of Indianapolis.

    While his alfalfa acres may be delayed this spring, the cooler weather did allow his orchard grass to grow very well. “The steady rain this spring has also helped the grass to grow,” he added.

    Considering he sells to horse owners who are known to be particular when it comes to their hay, Brown tries to keep his field as weed-free as possible. Despite the low temperatures, some weeds are growing.

    “There is some nettles starting to grow,” Brown said. “We sprayed a new field of timothy grass planted this past August, and it looks pretty good.”

    Hay prices spiked this spring for various reasons such as production issues last growing season and a cold winter that forced livestock producers to feed more hay. Brown said timothy grass hay prices were around $6 per bale, but are now closer to $7 per bale.

    “I emptied out the barn this spring, as everyone needed hay,” he said. “Considering I’m selling to mainly horse owners, a good economy is good news for me.”

    Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

    Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN

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