Last year's drought combined with winterkill in alfalfa and a cold, wet spring that delayed corn and soybean planting and the harvest of first-crop alfalfa have many Wisconsin dairy producers scrambling to get enough forages to feed their cattle.
"There are really two types of needs here. Some farmers are trying to shore up short-term feed supplies and others are worried about having enough feed to get through next spring," says Fond du Lac County Extension Crops and Soils Agent Mike Rankin. "The situation varies from farm to farm, but overall there is not the amount of forage inventory on farms this year that most farmers would like to have."
The drought in 2012 reduced the amount of alfalfa carryover to extremely low levels, Rankin says. The drought also caused many farmers to run short on corn silage. Winterkill, especially in central parts of the state where some farmers lost as much as 50% to 60% of their alfalfa crop, compounded the forage shortage. And the late development of first-crop alfalfa, due to a cold, wet spring, delayed harvest until the first week of June or later – a time when most farmers in the southern half of the state are normally winding down harvesting first crop.
What can farmers do to increase forage supplies?
Rankin says there is no need to panic – there's still time to build forage supplies as land becomes available from the harvest of this year's spring cereal grains, vegetable crops and winter wheat.
"In July, you could still plant a full-season corn hybrid with the realization you're only going to get forage, not grain," he says. "Sorghum sudangrass is another option in early July, but with reduced yield."
Rankin says buying standing alfalfa is an expensive option this year, but likely cheaper than buying high-quality baled alfalfa hay.
"We want to look at August for late summer seeding alfalfa or for planting fall-grown spring cereal grains like oats," Rankin says. "Late-summer seeded alfalfa will give us nearly the equivalent of an established stand next spring. The other thing that comes into play here is a lot of marginal 3- and 4-year-old alfalfa stands were kept this year, but will be terminated for next year. If there is land available in late-summer, seed it to alfalfa if conditions allow and forage inventories are adequate through next May."
Rankin cautions, summer-seeded alfalfa isn't going to produce forage this year. "If it looks like you won't have enough feed to get you through to next May, then you can plant available fields to spring cereals during the first half of August," he explains. "Following corn silage harvest in September and early October, winter cereal grains like rye or triticale can be seeded for forage harvest next May.
"Keep in mind, anything you plant is going to require some moisture to germinate and grow," Rankin says. "You get the crops planted, you still need rain. That happened last year. September was our driest month last year in east central Wisconsin."