Alfalfa Outlook Positive

John Harrington
DTN Livestock Analyst

OMAHA (DTN) -- John Moore and his son Aaron are ready for hay season to begin.

With Mother Nature not wanting to fully let go of winter and cold temperatures, Midwestern alfalfa growers may see a crop that is slightly delayed. Overall, though, alfalfa is in good shape as farmers await the start of hay season.

"We could start this week weather permitting," John Moore told DTN last week.

WINTERKILL LIMITED

The upper Midwest had a cold winter with much snowfall -- a good combination for alfalfa attempting to survive winterkill, according to Dan Wiersma, livestock information manager for DuPont Pioneer based in Mankato, Minn. A cold winter with little snowfall leads to more winterkill issues in alfalfa, as the crop is not insulated by snow cover, which can subject the plants to more damage from cold weather.

"It was not a severe year for winterkill in the region I cover," Wiersma told DTN. His region encompasses Minnesota and Wisconsin and extends into the Dakotas.

Alfalfa stands on the younger side generally tend to survive winterkill better than older stands. Older fields tend to be more susceptible to winter injury since they have more disease and stress over several years.

These older fields tend to be lower yielding, especially beyond three years old, Wiersma said.

M. Scott Wells, University of Minnesota Extension forage/cropping systems agronomist, said he did have reports of newly seeded stands that successfully survived the winter in his state, but he also had reports of plant injury and winterkill. One report he received said producers in a particular area said they had six inches of growth and the alfalfa was dying.

"They dug roots and they were stringy and mushy, indicating winterkill," Wells said. "This location did report a lack of snow cover."

Injury from winterkill is tough to predict, Wells said. It is hard to nail down because of the multiple stresses that influence winter survivability, he said.

Wells said it is extremely important for producers to assess their alfalfa stands for winterkill or injury.

The University of Minnesota Extension has a website that can help alfalfa growers assess winterkill and injury. The site is http://www.extension.umn.edu/….

GROWTH DELAYED

One doesn't need to be a meteorologist to know this spring has been abnormally cold, so the alfalfa crop is not growing as quickly as it would in warmer springs. This means the first cutting of alfalfa in most Midwestern locations will be delayed.

The crop in northeast Iowa is delayed by a good two weeks, said Dale Leslein, hay auctioneer and manager with the Dyersville Sales Company in Dyersville, Iowa. He figured very little alfalfa will be harvested in May, and it may be early June when the first cutting is put up.

"We usually get in early first cutting (to sell) from places like Kansas in the end of April, but we haven't got anything yet," Leslein said. "Of course they have been dry out there, but it also has been a long winter."

John and Aaron Moore farm near Manhattan, Ill., about 50 miles southeast of Chicago and raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Being so close to the city and its many suburbs, the Moores sell their small, square bales of hay to people who live on acreages and have horses as well as some local dairy and beef cattle farms.

In addition, the Moores are also in the process of shifting some of their acres over to organic production. An investment group bought land in the area and the Moores are renting it. Part of the deal is that the crops need to be grown organically.

John Moore said he was surprised how well their alfalfa made it through the cold, snowy Illinois winter. While some smaller areas in their fields looked to be damaged by winterkill, for the most part, their alfalfa looks fairly healthy.

"We had neighbors who had soft red winter wheat, and they were disking it up or sprayed it as it didn't make it through the winter, but the alfalfa looks really good," John Moore said.

Fellow northern Illinois farmer Keith Landis reports alfalfa is "pretty short yet" on his Sterling, Ill., farm.

He estimated last week that first cutting is still 10 days to two weeks away from occurring. Warmer weather would help the hay to grow some, he said.

Landis added that fall-seeded alfalfa fields that did not make it or are showing poor stands can probably be blamed more on the extremely dry fall they had than on the harsh winter.

Wiersma said he was concerned there could be some quality issues if the first cutting is delayed. Farmers are already busy enough in the spring, and a cold spring tends to push planting of crops and cutting hay all together into the same window of opportunity, he said.

"The first cutting is an important cutting considering 40% to 50% of the seasonal tonnage comes from this one cutting," Wiersma said. "We need to make sure we get this one right.

As for what pests could cause issues during the growing season, Wiersma said it is still too early to tell.

Many alfalfa growers will spray an insecticide between cuttings to control pests such as alfalfa weevils and leaf hoppers, he said. Some producers are even beginning to apply fungicides to help plants guard against fungal diseases and leaf spots.

HIGH-QUALITY HAY PRICES EXPECTED TO STAY HIGH

Leslein said hay prices really depend on the quality of the hay for sale. High-quality dairy hay has seen some higher prices, while lower-quality hay has seen lower prices.

"Our hay on the sale this week ranged from $10 per ton on same lower-quality stuff all the way up to $305 per ton for high-quality hay," Leslein said.

As one might expect, the difference in hay prices is because of demand. There is not much high-quality hay around, so the prices are relatively higher, Leslein said.

He said he expects prices for high-quality hay will be on the high side for "quite some time" due to higher milk prices and the delayed crop.

"You also have to look at the severe droughts in the Southern Plains area and out west," he said. "We ship all over the country and into Canada; if there are droughts, this is going to make hay in higher demand, which raises prices."

Wells said a large portion of alfalfa acreage was injured or killed last year because of various weather issues in Minnesota. These lost acres of hay also have an effect on the supply of hay.

"Lisa Behnken with University of Minnesota Extension reported to me that the big dairy herds in her region are already buying hay," Wells said. "We expect supply to be tight until we get into the growing season.

The Moores said they have been receiving several calls in recent weeks from their hay customers asking if they have any hay to sell. The answer to that question, according to John Moore, is "no" as their hay sheds have been empty for about a month now.

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