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For the past year, Mother Nature has thrown farmers every curve ball she can think of.

A late harvest season in 2018 thanks to wet conditions prevented many producers from completing much field work before winter set in. A harsh winter proved too much for a lot of alfalfa fields across Wisconsin, with many farmers reporting widespread winterkill.

A wet spring kept farm equipment out of the fields until May and into June. And persistent above normal precipitation has dogged farmers throughout the summer and into fall, with a delayed harvest and soggy fields. 

"What a wild year compared to last year. It's going to be an interesting year in terms of both quality and quantity of forages," said retired University of Illinois extension dairy specialist Mike Hutjens. 

Hutjens along with Make Rankin, managing editor of Hay & Forage Grower magazine co-presented "A feed and forage outlook" during the November Hoard's Dairyman webinar.

According to statewide precipitation rankings from April through June, Wisconsin had the 18th wettest spring on record since 1895. 

"What's striking about this map is just how widespread this precipitation fell across the U.S.," said Rankin. "And it really had an impact on harvesting forages this spring and fields being rutted up."

Rankin noted that 2019 recorded one of the lowest hay stocks on record since the turn of the century. 

"So, we started the growing season with not a lot of dry hay in barns and stacks across the U.S.," said Rankin, noting a downward trend since the drought in 2011-12. "We no longer make as much feed as we once did in terms of hay and, of course, that affects supply."

Since 2011, the national hay stocks have fallen below 70 million tons.

"We can't really blame this on lower numbers of livestock because dairy and beef herds are pretty much back to where they were pre-2012," he said.

Despite falling hay stocks and what Rankin calls a "lousy growing season", the USDA reports a 1.3% increase in alfalfa acres, combined with higher production yields.

Rankin says that alfalfa hay prices will be similar to what producers paid in 2018. September hay prices increased to $181/ton. California premium/supreme quality hay is running about $260-$290/ton delivered, while hay in the Midwest goes for around $220-$280/ delivered.

"The real thing you need to watch for is quality," Rankin said, adding that buyers should research the market and inspect the quality.

Rankin says the excessive rainfall and cooler weather had a significant impact on both the hay crop and corn silage this year. 

"A lot of forage harvested from the prevent plant acres includes a lot of late planted corn for silage. The quality on that stuff is going to be all over the place," he said. "A lot of corn got too dry because the fields were too wet. Some of it frosted before it was actually mature."

Not only is there a high risk of reduced grain quality, unharvested corn and soybean plants remaining in the field are exposed to excessive moisture that encourages the growth of ear molds and mycotoxins.

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"I think nutritionists are going to earn their keep this winter, especially how much lower quality of hay and silage inventories will temper milk production," he said. "It will vary from farm to farm depending on what's actually in the inventory."

Rankin stressed the importance of testing frequently due to the wide range of quality of feeds out in bunkers and in hay barns.

In addition to testing forage, Hutjens said farmers need to know whether or not their feed inventory will last until May.

"The question is, if you're short, what are you going to do?" he said. "In the meantime, farmers have choices they can make with feed inventories on hand. The real trouble, however, is when it happens in March and we're running out of corn silage."

Strategies to stretch feed inventories may include reducing cow numbers — culling less productive cows so feed can be directed to high performing cows. He also suggested stretching the existing feed inventory with by-products.

"Here in Illinois we're looking at a $20/cwt milk price so a lot of farmers aren't looking at that right now," Hutjens said. "And if you're planning to buy forages, I'd be buying them right about now."

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