Alfalfa Winterkill – What Do I Do Now?

Alfalfa simulated alfalfa winterkill May 9, 2017
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By Dr. James C. Coomer, Ph.D., PAS

There appears to be significant winterkill on alfalfa stands throughout the upper Midwest this year due to the mild winter and lack of snow cover to protect the plants. If you are among those experiencing significant winterkill on your alfalfa crop then you are probably asking the question “What do I do now” as it relates to feeding your herd. You need to start by consulting with your agronomy advisor on the extent of winterkill on the stand and whether you need to inter-seed or plow under (before or after 1st crop harvest) and plant to corn. This article is not going to cover these topics, but rather what to do regarding your nutrition program for your dairy herd. You will need to start by evaluating your current forage inventory and compare that to your current forage usage rates.

There are 3 possible situations you could find yourself in:

1) You have a 4-6 month supply of alfalfa at the current feeding rate,
2) You have a 2-4 month supply of alfalfa forage,
3) You are about to run out of alfalfa and you were counting on 1st crop to get by.
Let’s look at your options given the three different situations above.

1) You have a 4-6 month supply of Alfalfa forage based on the current usage rate.

Congratulations, you have done an excellent job in planning for your future and you will have the most options available to you in dealing with the winterkill.
• You can continue feeding your current rations to your herd and just make adjustments in your cropping plan for this year. You may want to take 1st crop of your current stands (if the stands are good enough) and then go in and plant a short day maturity corn for silage in those fields and add acres of new seeding alfalfa to your rotation. With this plan, you would use some of your current forage inventory surpluses this year with the plan to replenish that inventory over the next year or two.
• In addition to the above option, you also have available all the options that are about to be discussed.

2) You have a 2-4 month supply of alfalfa forage based on the current usage rate.

You are not in a serious situation, but you are going to need to make some adjustments to your feeding program. There are still several options available to you.
• If you have an abundant supply of corn silage, then you can increase the amount of corn silage you feed and reduce the amount of alfalfa in your rations to extend your supply out further into the fall. As mentioned above you may want to get 1st cutting off of fields that have sufficient stand left to warrant harvest. Then you could plant a short day maturity corn or a summer annual such as forage sorghum or a sorghum-sudangrass hybrid for silage.
• If you do not have an abundant supply of corn silage, you could purchase some alfalfa haylage from a neighbor if there is any available for sale. You would need to look close to home since it is expensive to transport water long distances, and maintaining the freshness of a wet forage is a challenge once it is exposed to oxygen again. Wrapped bales (balage) would also be a good option if care is taken to keep the wrapping intact.
• Another option would be to purchase some alfalfa hay. You can expand your search area since transportation costs on dry hay are not as prohibitive. Fortunately, the last two years have been above average for hay production in most of the upper Midwest and near West states and there has been an abundant supply of hay available. However, with the wildfires out west this winter, some of that surplus of hay has been burned up and some used to replace the hay that was burned up. There should be hay available, but the quality may not be as high as you would like it to be for dairy hay. If you want to choose this option I recommend you start looking for hay sooner rather than later.
• You also still have the additional options listed below.

3) You are about to run out of alfalfa and you were counting on 1st crop to get by.

You are in a serious situation and are going to need to make some drastic changes in your feeding program.
• If you have a very abundant supply of corn silage, you can consider feeding an all corn silage forage diet. I do not suggest this to be the optimal nutritional program for dairy cattle, but can be done successfully with the right supplementation. You will have to supply a lot more supplemental protein (soybean meal, canola meal, roasted soybeans, etc.) in the ration, but will need to feed less corn in the diet to prevent starch levels from getting too high and causing lactic acidosis. You will also need to feed more supplemental minerals, especially calcium with the all corn silage diet.
• If you don’t have a very abundant supply of corn silage, you need to check your bank account or your line of credit, because you are going to need to buy some help. You can consider the options listed above of purchasing some haylage or hay to add to your rations and stretch your forage inventory.

Another option is to consider commodities that can provide forage extending help. Let’s look at a few of these commodities.

• Whole fuzzy cottonseed is a very good feedstuff for extending forage supplies. It provides a good mix of fiber, protein, and energy (from fat). The fuzz on the cottonseed also helps it act more like forage and maintain cud-chewing in the cows. Storage may be challenging for some people since cottonseed cannot be stored in a bin, thus it will require flat storage. Cottonseed also cannot be included in a grain mix at high levels if the grain mix must be run through an auger. Cottonseed has been relatively expensive in the last few years, but current prices seem to have moderated some, so this may be a good option for some people.

• Cottonseed hulls are another good option for forage extending. It provides a good fiber source with some effectiveness. However, it does not supply the protein and energy that whole cottonseed supplies. It can also be a handling challenge similar to the whole cottonseed.

Alfalfa Water

• Wet brewer’s grains can be an option if you are located within about 100 miles of a brewery. Brewer’s grains provide very good nutrition with protein in the mid-20s and good digestible fiber and are very palatable. The downside is the water. Most brewer’s grains are about 80% water, so transportation is an issue. Additionally, the water will run out of the grains if stored on a flat surface (cannot be stored in a bin or tank), therefore shrink is an issue. Spoilage can also be an issue with any wet feedstuff.
• Some dry commodities can help with a short forage supply situation. They can be included in a grain mix and allow you to feed a lower forage diet. Some of these are Soy hulls, corn gluten feed, malt sprout pellets, oat hulls, spelt hulls, oat mill feed, citrus pulp, beet pulp.

It’s never too early to start planning for forage shortages.

Winterkill of alfalfa is not a fun issue to deal with on a dairy operation and creates great stress when faced with it. There are options available to you to keep your dairy herd running at their best. It is never too early to start planning for forage shortages in the future. Use of Silo-King® forage treatment can help you with your forage inventory by reducing storage losses. If you have questions or want help figuring out what option is best for you, please contact your trusted Agri-King nutrition consultant. AK