Alfalfa stand losses an early season concern

Ray Mueller
Dairy farms across the state are holding breakfast on the farm events for June Dairy Month.

KIMBERLY – In several east central Wisconsin counties and perhaps elsewhere, the dairy and other livestock farmers who still have large forage reserves are heading into the new crop season with a major advantage because of significant alfalfa stand losses that have become evident in recent weeks.

During a review on pending decisions for the upcoming crop year by Outagamie County crops, soils, and horticulture agent Kevin Jarek, Extension Service agriculture and dairy agents from several counties shared observations during the semi-annual farm management update for agribusiness professionals, most of whom are with lending institutions.

From farm visits and communications with crop consultants, Jarek estimated alfalfa stand losses of 50 to 60 percent where clay soils are prominent in the eastern part of the county. He recalled that he “had a bad feeling” about that possibility when a period of unusually warm weather occurred for nearly a week in February.

County conditions

Based on a meeting with five crop consultants serving farmers in the county, Manitowoc County dairy and livestock agent Scott Gunderson reported they agreed that the alfalfa stand losses are at least 50 percent, perhaps reaching 60 percent as a result of root rot caused excessive rains during the first half of spring. He had learned that a few dairy farmers were likely to run out of forage before the harvest of this year's first alfalfa cutting.

For Winnebago County, agriculture agent Darrell McCauley indicated a probable 50 to 60 percent loss for the eastern part of the county while the status in the western part was still questionable. There were varied conditions in Kewaunee County, ranging from many fields that “look perfect” while others have a 50 to 75 percent loss even though a late cutting wasn't taken in 2016 in either case, according to agriculture agent Aerica Bjurstrom.

Darrell McCauley

To the west in Waupaca County, agriculture agent Greg Blonde estimated 10 to 20 percent losses, mainly in older stands. To the north in Marinette and Oconto counties, agriculture agent Scott Reuss said alfalfa stand losses were mostly confined to low spots.

In Fond du Lac County, dairy and livestock agent Tina Kohlman said losses were heavy on low lying fields and spotty on heavy soils. There were also some stand losses in Brown County but most dairy farms are entering the new cropping season with a significant forage inventory, according to agriculture educator Liz Binversie.

Closer alfalfa analysis

On the day before the meeting, Jarek took a series of photos to show the various conditions he found. Stand losses were very noticeable on a low-lignin alfalfa research plot that he's overseeing on the Van Wychen farm in the Freedom area.

In other fields, including one near Hortonville, the photos highlighted the remaining plant debris from alfalfa that was not harvested late in the 2016 growing season. Jarek had received one estimate that those “carcass plants” could shave about 20 quality points from this year's first cutting in those fields.

During his May 4 field inspections, Jarek found alfalfa growth heights ranging from 9 to 17 inches. Perhaps due to the February snow melt and resulting ice sheets, he saw “many dead spots” and observed that whether or not a late harvest was taken in 2016 did not seem to affect the winter survival of the alfalfa stand.

As a result of the upcoming yield losses, Jarek surmised that farmers who have stocks of hay are going to be reluctant to sell because they're going to need it for their own livestock. Although the most recent auction market prices have apparently not yet reacted to the pending losses, it's likely that those prices will increase, he observed.

In two cases, Gunderson learned that farmers were being asked to pay $400 to $450 per acre for three cuttings of standing alfalfa this year. In another case, the seller would cut the crop and be paid $175, $150, and $125 per acre for the first through third cuttings while the buyer would have the responsibility of harvesting.

Delayed planting season 

As the second week of May began, farmers in east central Wisconsin were well behind recent year timetables on both spring tillage and corn planting because of surplus moisture in more than 80 percent of the topsoil, Jarek noted. He cited yield data from Extension Service corn agronomist Joe Lauer which indicates that growers can expect only 95 percent of maximum yield when corn isn't planted until mid-May – and corresponding lower yields at later times.

In early May, area commercial corn buyers were quoting prices in the low $3s per bushel and soybeans at below $9 per bushel, Jarek reported. At such prices, he cited reports that corn growers in Illinois were striving to minimize losses this year. Recent crop losses due to flooding in Illinois, Missouri, and several other states were not yet included in those projections.

Regarding soybeans, Jarek recalled that in January of this year he advised area growers to lock into futures prices at above $10.50 per bushel. Futures prices have declined more than 10 percent since then, in part to the March crop intention estimates which added 7 percent to national acres and 10 percent in Wisconsin, he observed.

Fertilizer values 

If there's one bright spot for corn, it's that fertilizer prices have fallen by nearly two-thirds from their high point four to five years ago, Jarek pointed out. In turn, that lowers the value of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and sulfur in livestock manure, he noted.

The previous fertilizer values totaled about $24 per 1,000 gallons for liquid manure and $12 per ton of solid manure, Jarek indicated. Today, they have fallen to $6.30 and $3.72 respectively for the group of N, P, and K, he observed.

Jarek also referred to the downturn in land rents across much of Wisconsin. For 2016, he reported that the average in Outagamie County dropped by $20 per acre – to $108.

In his other field observations, Jarek estimated that 60 percent of the winter wheat in Outagamie County was in good or better condition. He also had a concern about the amount of rutting which remained in fields as a result of harvesting in the autumn of 2016.