Forage crop options diagnosed for 2020

Ray Mueller
As the planting window for crops grows smaller, many farmers are beginning to ask questions about delayed or prevent planting.

BRILLION – Anxiety and uncertainty exist in late winter as farmers think about what forage crops they'll be harvesting in the upcoming growing season to feed their cattle.

That concern was discussed during the “Meeting Tomorrow's Feeding Challenges Today” program sponsored by Extension Service offices in Wisconsin's east central counties. Late winter observations and ideas were shared by UW-Madison Division of Extension crops, soils, and horticulure agent for Outagamie County Kevin Jarek, Country Visions Cooperative agronomist Mike Kuffel, and University of Wisconsin nutrient and pest management senior outreach specialist Jamie Patton during a panel program and in a separate presentation by Jarek.

“Indecision is the main discussion” among the farmers in his main service area of Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties, Kuffel indicated. “We're down in our area, not totally desperate, but we're stretching the system.”

“We're in compromise situation. There's no silver bullet for what we have,” Kuffel stated. “I admit it's real easy to farm from a desk.”

Kevin Jarek

For Jarek, the bottom line is the “bulk tank economics” on dairy farms. With an eye on milk components, he reported that having good quality annual rye grass or a cocktail forage mix in rations has boosted components while a few dairy farmers have added cows of high-component breeds.

Laundry list of concerns

The particular concerns cited by Jarek and Kuffel are the yield potential (likely built-in losses of 10 to 20%) on the alfalfa fields which were patched with grasses and other alternative forages in 2019, the newly seeded alfalfa whose winter dormancy status was in question during January, the condition of the cereal rye and winter wheat which was planted fairly late in 2019, and the availability of seed for some crop species.

“There's the anxiety of do I have a hay stand or not,” Kuffel remarked. With alfalfa, he suggested a minimum average of 40 stems per square foot for keeping the stand in 2020.

“A really scary takeaway is the seed supply. You need to know now,” Jarek advised.

Kuffel noted that millet and sorghum variety seed could be in short supply because of how much was used in 2019 as farmers tried to grow extra forage.

Regarding seed, Patton warned about the temptation to plant unclean bin run seed. At the very least, clean that seed to remove weed seed and foreign matter and conduct a germination test, she stated.

Review of upside experiences

If there was an upside from the challenges in 2019, it was the experience of becoming more familiar with alternative forages, Patton pointed out. With the sorghum varieties, one reinforced lesson from 2019 is that they grow much better during very warm weather, Kuffel observed.

There are opportunities on the acres for which cereal rye or winter wheat were planned but not planted in 2019, Kuffel and Patton noted. “Tell me if you want quality or tons,” Kuffel advised.

“Have contingency plans,” Kuffel continued. Patton suggested an A, B, C, cropping strategy based on the soil quality.

Manure application strategies

On acres that are open at the start of the growing season, Patton outlined the possibility of starting with a spring cereal grain (oats, barley, or wheat) to be harvested as forage followed by a warm season grass in mid-summer and then a cover crop in the early autumn. This would allow for two intervening manure applications for soil health and crop benefits, she explained.

Kuffel endorsed such a scenario, noting the possibility of up to three applications of 5,000 to 6,000 gallons each of liquid manure during the growing season. He pointed out that sorghum is a high user of phosphorus.

With how record precipitation totals have altered the makeup of liquid manure, Patton urged testing for the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium concentrations. The findings could show a need to supplement corn with synthetic nutrients, she noted.

Thinking outside the box

Patton subscribes to a “thinking outside the box” approach in addressing the current challenges. Based on the recent experiences, Jarek acknowledges that there could be serious concerns about the certainty of counting on alfalfa as the major contributor of forage in the area.

Jamie Patton

Consider the green chopping (a common practice in the 1950s and 1960s) of grasses, Patton advised. Kuffel chimed in, noting that one client green chopped up to 200 acres of grasses in 2019 and enjoyed dry matter yield totals of up to eight tons per acre.

The panelists reminded farmers to be aware of the trait differences between the varieties in the alternative forage spectrum, to coordinate with nutritionists on what forage traits are desired for dairy herd rations, and to realize that differences within the forage species will be negated if the appropriate harvesting and storage protocols are not followed.

Field and planting conditions

Regarding the selection of corn hybrids, Kuffel opts for the longer season varieties in order to obtain the highest yields but he adds that “what's right for you” is also a factor. For the early planting of corn, when the soils are cold or wet, he recommends a five-part fertilizer starter. Jarek noted that starter fertilizer is often a good choice for late planted corn.

How will ruts and wet conditions from last year affect planting in 2020?

On the possibility that soil compaction will hinder corn plant access to nutrients, Patton said the concern might not be as great as is suggested by the sight of ruts in many fields after the 2019 harvest. She based that on her observations from field pit soil demonstrations into November.

In what might seem to be counter-intuitive about compaction, Patton explained that having what would otherwise be air pores in soil filled with water instead served to limit compaction to the top several inches of the soil. If there is any doubt about the extent of compaction, check with a penetrometer or shovel to determine if compaction exists, she advised. Kuffel cited the likelihood of 10 to 20 percent yield losses due to compaction.

Patton pointed out that potassium is in short supply in some area soils. What's a concern, she said, is whether compacted soils hinder corn plant roots from getting to the available supply. Regarding forage quality and safety, Jarek said multiple stresses lead to problems.

Getting realistic with alfalfa

In his separate presentation, well illustrated with an extensive collection of photos, Jarek reminded farmers that “some issues are under your control, others are not.” Among “the things you never forget” from 2019 were seeing forage covered with snow being baled or raked and newly established alfalfa being alive rather than dormant under snow in January of 2020, he stated.

Farmers who will face a feed shortage before the next possible harvest in spring have a choice of adding to a debt load, and informing one's lender of that fact, or selling assets such as machinery or land in order to purchase feed, Jarek indicated. “Have an A,B,C plan.”

With regard to alfalfa, “we have to be realistic about what the established stands will look like after breaking dormancy,” Jerak warned. “We have reached a critical decision point with alfalfa production in Wisconsin.”

Jerak cited the extreme weather conditions which have played havoc with stand survival along with even growth and forage quality. In addition, depending on custom harvesters isn't ideal when weather interferes with the timeliness of harvest, he observed.

An option is to purchase high volume harvest equipment but that incurs a cost, not to mention a labor need, that is beyond reach in many cases, Jarek continued. To a question about leasing harvest equipment, he advised checking with dealers.

'Decision point' factors

While noting that the state has about 1.25 million acres of alfalfa to feed its 1.25 million dairy cows, Jarek said the “decision point” is whether to continue depending on that correlation, particularly in the wake of severe stand losses and damage in 2019 and the possibility it could happen again this year. A related question, he said, is whether milk production per ton or per acre of dry matter is more important for the farm.

FILE PHOTO - Farmers around the state started spring last year with fewer acres of alfalfa due to winterkill.

With alfalfa, for which annual per acre yields generally range from near three to six dry matter tons, depending on the farm and weather, there is a choice of the low lignin varieties which extend the harvest window for top quality by about one week and would probably reduce the number of yearly cuttings from four to three, Jarek pointed out. But a downside with low lignin is a per acre establishment cost that's well above the approximately $300 for the standard alfalfa varieties, he noted.

The short-term weather outlook doesn't look especially favorable while the summer months outlook appears to be neutral, Jarek observed. Regardless of what the weather proves to be, he tells farmers who will grow a sorghum-sudan mix, which is capable of high yields at high quality, to set the cutting height at a minimum of six inches to enable a significant regrowth.

Whatever forage is grown and harvested, don't waste the effort by storing it improperly (and becoming subject matter for photos such as floating round bales that he'd rather not take), Jarek emphasized. At the very least, take an inventory of current feed supplies to determine cropping strategies, to decide if cattle should be sold, or if feed should be purchased, he advised.

Working the numbers

While the latest reported hay supply in Wisconsin was 1% higher than a year earlier, that number is very misleading because the supply a year earlier was down by 34% from the previous year, Jarek pointed out. He wouldn't speculate on what hay prices would be in the coming months but suggested they probably won't be good for buyers.

For those who decide to buy stored feed from on farms where cattle have been dispersed, be aware of such factors as the need for labor and equipment and such possible snags as who maintains equipment or pays for necessary repairs, Jarek advised. He noted that there are Extension Service and other websites with charts and tables that serve as guides on feed value, pricing, and finances.

As to what's already happened in 2020, Jarek has learned from seed dealers that sales of 80 to 90-day hybrid corn have increased, suggesting that farmers want an early silage harvest to boost forage inventories. He is a bit wary of that choice, noting that a 100-day hybrid is likely to produce 20 more bushels of corn grain and about 2.5 more tons of dry matter per acre.

Because it's “better to be safe than sorry,” be aware of the possibility of mold or mycotoxis in the corn stored on one's farm or in any that's purchased and be sure to inform the herd nutritionist about any planned purchases, Jarek concluded. In the meantime, he added, be confident that “where there is a will, there is a way.”