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MANAWA – Producing an adequate supply of forage is a key to success for many Wisconsin dairy producers. However, those who grow and feed forage need to look at the big picture if they really want to understand the challenges and opportunities currently facing them

That was at the heart of the message from Mike Rankin, managing editor of Hay & Forage Grower Magazine, as he recently spoke to forage producers in central Wisconsin. “I never thought about the big picture much when I worked in UW Extension,” he remarked, “but it really does provide a perspective on what we do, how much hay costs and how much hay there is.”

He noted that USDA publishes a hay stock report for the entire country. “They do this in May and December, and we can see that stocks have been growing quite rapidly since the drought year of 2011 and 2012. We haven’t been here since 2005 in terms of how much hay is out there,” Rankin related.

“We are increasing the hay supply now but at a slower rate than previously,” he reported. “This is largely because of the price of hay, and we’re also seeing that people have stopped growing hay.”

Market trends

Rankin pointed out the US hay supply was up about .9 percent on Dec. 1 relative to Dec. 2015. “Here in Wisconsin we were up 10.3 percent,” he said. “When you read about hay production, those numbers refer to dry hay. That explains why USDA numbers are often so much lower than what a lot of producers actually get.”

Statistics of harvested acres, show Wisconsin coming in at about 1 million acres of alfalfa. “However, when you look at haylage and green-chopped forage, we actually double that number, but that information gets rarely put out there,” he explained. “We often hear that California is the top alfalfa producing state, but if our haylage is included, we’re over 7 million tons, and California is at 5 million. Nobody else is even close.”

He noted that Western states produce a lot of dry hay. “They can make really good baled alfalfa, top quality stuff,” said Rankin. “But in these states producers are feeding less alfalfa to their dairy cattle, dropping from 12 to less than eight pound per cow, per day in California. When you consider the number of cows in California, that amounts to a show lot of hay that doesn’t get made now, or needs to find another home.”

Instead of growing alfalfa, many California farmers are utilizing much of their acreage for growing almonds and other nuts. “They treat these fields like we treat a field of soybeans or corn. If almonds are making them money, they’re going to plant almonds,” Ranking asserted.

Hay exports 

“I had never paid much attention to hay exports, but this is now an important market,” Rankin acknowledged. “There’s a huge gorilla in the room here by the name of China. Only a few years ago, it wasn’t even on the export map; now they’re importing over 1 million metric tons, and there’s no indication this is slowing down. This is what’s happening over there from a dairy production standpoint.”

He noted that previously Japan had been the largest importer, and is still a large buyer of US hay. “None of the hay can be transgenic. So, many Western growers just can’t plant Round-up Ready alfalfa if they know it’s going to the export market, and a lot of it grown out there does,” Rankin explained.

Saudi Arabia has large dairies but because of the scarcity of water, the Saudi government no longer allows the farmers to grow alfalfa, according to Rankin.

“So these dairies are buying massive amounts of acreage out West. They paid $32 million for land in California after paying $48 million for 10,000 acres in Arizona. They’re buying up this land, making their own alfalfa and shipping it to Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Drought picture

California, which had severe drought conditions for several years, has been receiving excessive moisture this winter. “What effect that will have on their hay production remains to be seen,” Rankin suggested.

He noted that several other regions of the country are currently facing drought conditions. “In northern Georgia, northern Alabama and northern Mississippi it’s been extremely day,” said Rankin. “It’s also dry in parts of the High Plains, which we didn’t see a year ago.”

New England also has been experiencing some drought conditions. “This has been somewhat surprising, because we don’t normally think of that region as being dry,” he remarked.

Transgentic seed

One of the changes that’s been long in coming to the industry is transgenic trait alfalfa, according to Rankin.

“I’ve talked to the researchers, I’ve seen the research. I’ve talked to guys who’ve put it in over the last two years,” Rankin related. “Last year it was widely available, but keep in mind that this past year everybody got the same blend of all the varieties.

“In 2017, each company now has its own variety, and if history tells us anything, not all these varieties are going to perform exactly the same. So now the real challenge is to sort out what differences occur between the different companies,” he advised. “Talk to people who have grown it and fed it, but I think it’s safe to say it is what it claims to be.”

Industry changes

Rankin emphasized the changes are continuing to affect the forage industry.

“Baleage use is exploding all across the country,” he remarked. “The other thing I’ve found traveling around the country is how much cereal forages are being used in livestock production systems. Whether it’s rye, wheat, oats or triticale, cereals are planted everywhere in this country and are being harvested as forage.”

Digestibility is one aspect of forage producers need to learn more about, according to Rankin. “I think we’ll be learning more about this as time goes on, but a lot of the research that been done to date will translate into reduced lignin alfalfa and better digestible forage,” he said.

Rankin predicts industry consolidation also will affect Wisconsin farmers. “There are advantages and disadvantages to consolidation, but there’s likely to be less competition,” he said.

He is also concerned about a potential lack of university researchers in the future. “Many universities are not filling forage positions, and I don’t know who’s going to train new forage agronomists.”

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