Forage Fast or Fast Forage?

May 14, 2019
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By Gene P. Gengelbach, Ph.D. PAS

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…  Last year (2018) U.S. hay and haylage production was down 6% from the prior year, and quality was below average in many regions due to untimely rains interrupting the normal harvest schedule.  Couple that with the extreme winter weather that many have experienced (extreme cold, snow, and now flooding) and hay/haylage production for 2019 could be adversely affected again.  If dairy and beef producers don’t want their animals to take a fast from eating quality forages they have to figure out a way to get quality forages fast.

Closeup photo of heaved alfalfa plant.

What can producers do to jumpstart 2019 forage production?  The first task is to assess the health of existing hay fields.   Low-lying areas that have experienced water ponding and ice sheets will be hardest hit.  Also, hilltops and areas that had little or no snow cover during sub-zero weather will also be subject to winterkill.  Some things to look for are:

  • Alfalfa plants that are heaved out of the ground.  These plants may green up, but often the crowns are pushed high enough that they are mowed off during the first cutting and consequently will die.
  • Alfalfa root damage.  Dig up several plants and slice the tap root down the middle.  The root should be firm and white.  If it is soft and brown, it is probably dead or diseased and won’t green up or will be unlikely to survive another year.
  • Decreased stand count.  Wait for alfalfa to green up and check the stand by counting shoots.  Ideally you should have at least 50-55 shoots per square foot for optimum production.  Below 40 shoots means you should seriously consider replacing the field, especially if root health of the existing plants is compromised.

What are the options if the hay field is not good enough to keep?

  • If it is a mixed grass-alfalfa stand is there enough grass to fill in and provide adequate yields?  If so then provide adequate fertilizer for the anticipated yield.  If damage is limited to isolated areas consider using a no-till drill to re-seed grass in those areas.  Remember that alfalfa cannot be re-seeded into and existing alfalfa stand because of autotoxicity.  Don’t waste your time and money, plant a high-quality grass mixture instead.
  • If you have a partial stand that is not worth keeping, but you really need forage as soon as possible, consider taking off the first cutting of hay as early as practical then destroy the stand and plant a short season corn for silage.  If there is not a long enough growing season remaining for corn silage to mature then other options would be forage sorghum, sorghum-sudangrass or pearl millet (BMR varieties are best for forage quality). Annual grasses such as Italian ryegrass or Teff would be good options for high quality hay or haylage.  Also, many forage seed companies have mixtures such as forage oats with peas or other legumes that will provide a quick forage crop.
  • If you choose to abandon the field without getting a cutting, then you have more options.  You could plant a full-season corn crop for grain or silage which will utilize the nitrogen provided by the previous alfalfa stand.  You could plant any of the annual forages discussed above (oats mixtures will probably do better the earlier they are planted since oats and peas are cool-weather crops), or go ahead and replant a perennial grass mixture for hay (remember not to include alfalfa in the mix if it is going into an existing alfalfa field). 
  • The guidelines above will also hold true for those fields that will not dry out soon enough to plant corn for silage.  The table below from Dr. Dan Undersander from the University of Wisconsin lists a number of options for alternative crops, along with the recommended time of planting and the expected yield and quality parameters.
  • Make sure to treat your hay or haylage crop with Silo King® to preserve valuable nutrients and get maximum digestibility and animal performance. 

If you are running short of forage this spring there are several ways to stretch your forage supplies.

  • High-fiber byproducts such as whole cottonseeds or almond hulls can be a good replacement for forage, since they will stimulate rumination like forage does.  Less forage can be fed while keeping grain levels about the same.
  • Soy hulls, corn gluten feed, brewers grains and distillers grains are higher fiber byproducts that can replace both grain and forage.  While these byproducts may not necessarily increase rumination, they can reduce the amount of grains/starch fed which would help reduce the chance of acidosis when lower amounts of forage are fed.
  • Feed Agri-King’s RuMend® or ZyMend® enzyme products to help increase feed efficiency and get increased production from your limited feed resources.

If you have any questions about your forage stand or options for replacement forages contact a local agronomist or seed sales professional for advice on what will work best for your situation.  The quicker you start this process the better chance you will have of getting Fast Forage instead of a Forage Fast! AK