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Ag expert provides update on nationwide state of this year's forage, silage harvests

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Round hay bales with corn field.

Ag expert Mike Hutjens provided an update Monday on the state of 2020 forage and silage across the country.

Hutjens, who has worked for the University of Illinois extension system specializing in dairy cattle nutrition since 1979 and is a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison, said this year's weather set records on both ends of the spectrum, which had good and bad effects on the growing season and harvest.

Hutjens said many areas of the US were drier than usual, including the Great Plains and the Midwest, and especially the New England region, which he said had a record dry season in some places. Hutjens said the South experienced very wet conditions. Last year's planting and harvesting conditions were very wet compared to this year, so Hutjens said there were improvements.

Michael Hutjens, Animal Sciences, ANSCI, College of Agricultural Consumer and Environmental Sciences

"One of the things I learned was that when you have an early planting year, it doesn't guarantee you a great year, but it increases your odds tremendously," Hutjens said. "Conversely, if you have a year where planting is late, it doesn't guarantee a poor year. But the best year you can probably have is nothing more than average."

Corn planting was also ahead of last year with the average plantings done by mid-May this year as opposed to merely half of crops planted by June in 2019, Hutjens said, with much of the blame falling on the poor weather. For the most part, he said the country had a good growing season despite dry conditions, especially in Wisconsin and Illinois.

Those good conditions allowed hay stocks to come back up from last year's rather low inventory, Hutjens said. He said that even though some places had dry conditions that reduced yield in small numbers, the quality was not affected. However, he said farmers are not making as much hay through the winter as they used to.

"We had one of the lowest hay stocks as of May 1 that we've had in quite a number of years. This year it bounced back a little, so from the standpoint of having a little extra inventory this year, (it's) certainly much more appealing than the situation we were in last year," Hutjens said. "Having said that, we're also in a situation where we both don't make as much hay or feed as much hay through the winter as we once did."

Hutjens added that hay prices are continuing to stay stable, hovering around $170-180 a ton on average throughout the nation. And in international trade, alfalfa hay exports, are up 6% now compared to last year, with a peak of 20% this year, he said. Hutjens explained that higher tariffs help raise domestic hay prices.

"Alfalfa hay exports ... are a big deal out in the West," Hutjens said. "China's back in the game with the old tariff deal. This does help the bolster hay prices out West."

Despite the increase in alfalfa hay exports, Hutjens said the acreage of alfalfa production decreased by as much as 33% in 17 states between 2005 and 2019, adding that it's no surprise because alfalfa haylage is becoming "a more common form of alfalfa harvest." And despite the popularity of alfalfa hay in the West, the US Department of Agriculture predicts alfalfa grass production will be down 6% this year. Hutjens also said acreage of corn silage production is up 14% in the same states and time period.