Spring is coming. After a long, cold, snowy winter, farmers have been wondering if it would ever come; but when it does finally appear, they will be out in full force establishing their crops for the 2014 feed supply.
Mike Rankin, University of Wisconsin-Extension Fond du Lac crops and soils agent, said drought and winterkill the past two years made alternative feed sources a must for some farmers. Speaking to a large gathering of farmers at the UW-Extension Washington County conference in Richfield in March, Rankin said now is a good time to look back and assess which strategies were effective and which were not.
He helped producers decide which forage alternatives made sense and may be beneficial, even in a good year.
"Forage inventories are not necessarily where we want them right now and each farm will be different," Rankin said." You need to look at your goal. Do you need feed fast? Do you need to build inventory for 2014 or build forage acres for 2015?"
Options include buying standing hay, planting corn for silage or including ryegrass, sorghum and cereal grains in the mix.
Regarding standing hay, he said historically it was a good option, but in 2013, determining the value of that hay was quite different.
Traditionally, he suggested starting with a floor price that includes land rent rates, potassium removal and an allowance for seeding and soil preparation at a pro-rated amount. Then the formula, because of high land rent, resulted in farmers deciding it was cheaper to buy hay than to buy standing hay and harvest it themselves.
Now Rankin determines the price according to current hay prices and expected yield. He believes that in 2014, dairy farmers will be better off renting hay ground.
Another way to stretch forage supplies is to plant corn for silage after first crop alfalfa harvest. Even if it gets in a little later, it's still the best way to get tonnage, he said.
Rankin presented results of a 26-year study looking at the economics of corn silage establishment after first crop alfalfa harvest. In six of 26 years, a better option would have been to keep the alfalfa stand. In four out of 26 years, planting corn after first cut hay was the best.
"This was the best option in 2013," he said, "but in 16 out of the 26 years, the best option would have been to plant the corn earlier and not wait for first crop alfalfa harvest."
Last year, because of the cool wet spring, some corn was planted as late as July 1. "You can actually plant corn all the way to August 1 if all you want is tonnage," he said
Rankin also looked at maturity choices when planting corn late. He said corn has two quality peaks — one at silking and one at complete maturity. When delaying planting, it may seem as if a short maturity would be the best choice, but he said in most years it is better to choose a longer maturity and aim for harvest at the silking stage.
Other options for emergency forages are ryegrasses, including Italian and perennial. Italian is the preferred choice, he said, because it is fast and has good quality. The disadvantage is if it is hot and dry, it shuts down.
"If you use it as a companion crop, be careful not to use too much because it is aggressive and will crowd out the alfalfa," he said.
Sorghum and sorghum sudan grasses, planted in June, are good because these crops like warm weather. If planted too late, it will develop slowly in cooler weather.
Another option is to double crop with winter cereal crops, but they need moisture and won't do well if no-tilled into an alfalfa field after first crop harvest.
There are BMR options available that provide a good feed but they need plenty of nitrogen.
Spring cereal grains provide a good yield, but quality might be lower. Triticale is somewhat lower in yield than oats, but it always has better quality. Adding peas to the mix will increase quality and palatability but not yield.
Fall seeding spring cereal grains worked well in 2013, but in 2012 it did not work because it was too dry. The ideal time for this option is between August 1 and 15.
Winter rye has become a popular choice for feed for dry cows and heifers. However, Ranking cautioned, "Make sure it is winter hardy and know your seed. Make sure it is good quality and will germinate properly."
He also mentioned the importance of scouting for army worms if corn is planted after the ryegrass since the rye provides a good nesting spot for these pests.