Even without the lengthy delay in the seeding of annual crops, the stand losses in thousands of alfalfa fields in Wisconsin's east central counties are "an 800-pound gorilla" at the start of the 2013 cropping season.
Waupaca County agricultural agent Greg Blonde shared this information with attendees at the Extension Service's semi-annual farm management update for ag professionals.
Reports from crop consultants and Extension Service agents throughout the region indicate that alfalfa winterkill is worst in the areas fairly close to Lake Michigan and quite bad in Shawano and Waupaca counties with stand losses of one-half-two-thirds not being uncommon, Blonde stated.
He said the conditions are only slightly better in the counties between those two areas.
Other than the somewhat normal losses in low spots in fields, the distribution of alfalfa plant mortality within fields is quite unusual and puzzling, Blonde remarked.
If there's one identifiable difference, it's that younger alfalfa stands have fared the best, he pointed out.
Outagamie County crops, soils, and horticulture agent Kevin Jarek has been tracking a few fields from which a fifth cutting was taken in 2012 - also with very mixed results on the survival of the stand.
He noted that one field on which the stubble from a fifth crop was left standing - a common recommendation by agronomists - is nonetheless not faring well on stand survivability.
From a month earlier at the county forage council's early spring field day, Jarek recalled that the alfalfa plants dug from very recently thawed soil and placed into a heated setting had sprung to life.
Earlier in the day, however, he returned to that same field and found a significant percentage of dead plants.
The Root Test
Blonde pointed out that digging and splitting roots to check for the color and texture (white and firmness are good) is an easy short-term test for alfalfa plant viability.
Stunted growth is strong evidence of root damage while discolored and spongy roots are signs of dying plants and a smell resembling that of rotting potatoes is a sure sign of a dead plant.
In evaluating what to do with thinned alfalfa stands, consider keeping the field if the loss doesn't surpass 25 percent and fill in with a seeding of Italian annual ryegrass as soon as possible in order to salvage two forage cuttings from the field this year, Blonde advised.
For stand losses exceeding 50 percent, rotating to a new crop such as corn for silage or even to two plantings of oats for harvest as forage during the growing season are among the agronomically acceptable steps, Blonde suggested.
He reminded growers to take the nitrogen credits from the previous alfalfa stand when growing corn.
Winnebago County agriculture agent Nick Schneider relayed an advisory from Extension Service weed control specialist Mark Renz about the possibility of applying Roundup herbicide to an alfalfa field that's going to be taken out of production.
This needs to be done in about a 36-48-hour window before the existing stand is harvested.
Attention must also be given to choosing the proper ingredient herbicides if weed control is needed so the following crop will not be in jeopardy, Schneider added.
Growers who have crop insurance on their alfalfa need to contact their insurance agent before converting to another crop this spring, Blonde pointed out.
With the amount of forage production (dry and ensiled) that's going to be lost in one of the state's major dairy regions and with forage reserves already being tight, it's obvious that prices are going to rise to beyond what buyers are accustomed to, Jarek observed.
At area and state markets, top quality hay is commanding prices of just over $300 per ton and even low quality hay is bringing $200 per ton, Jarek noted. Another way to look at prices is that the typical cost of $1 per ton per Relative Feed Value number has virtually doubled in the current market, he explained.
Livestock feeders faced with having to buy alfalfa haylage are also not acquainted with the numbers they're having to pay if dry hay prices are used as a starting point in the formula, Jarek remarked.
When all of the moisture conversions are made, haylage of similar quality as top grade dry hay would be worth about $134 per ton as fed, he indicated.
He also mentioned the virtually unheard potential of $57-$65 per wet ton prices for corn silage in the current price structure.
Forage Quality Tests
In all cases, be sure to obtain a laboratory analysis or near infra-red test on the forage being purchased, Jarek emphasized.
To compensate for lost alfalfa production, consider the high quality - in terms of milk production per ton of feed - brown mid-rib corn as an alternative crop for this year, he suggested.
When setting a value on corn silage, be sure to consider when the supply is fermented or fresh and what the harvesting costs are, Jarek stated.
Buying and selling of forages should also factor in the nutrient values of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium of approximately $55-$60 per ton for red clover, alfalfa, and grasses, he added.
Regarding the lateness of the 2013 planting season for corn, Jarek said it is not advisable to use starter fertilizer with the portion of the crop that will be planted the earliest.
It goes against the common notion but research continually shows late-planted corn benefits the most with a boost from starter fertilizer, he remarked.
In what promises to be a difficult crop production season, Jarek also reminded growers to gain full advantage of manure applications by knowing the makeup of that manure to calculate its nutrient value.
In addition, he advised rapid incorporation of liquid manure to reduce the loss of nitrogen.