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Forage trends and prognostication

Robin Newell Published on 05 March 2014
Based on the title, you might be wondering if prognostication is some kind of new forage management practice – and in a way, it is. Prognostication means “to predict, using current indicators as a guide.”

To help you formulate your own forage prognosis, let’s first cover two major shifts occurring in U.S. forage production and utilization.

Then we’ll look at management options and attributes of conserved forage crop species – changes that will influence yield and feed value, ration inclusion rates and perhaps influence market pricing and acreage trends of our main U.S. forage crops over the next several years.

Grain and forage commodity availability and market prices are forceful factors that affect nearly all operations that grow or feed forages. Pricing and volume are in flux all the time in the feed and forage commodity markets.

But when the price and availability of an individual feedstuff go outside an established range for an extended time, it alters the relative value proposition compared to other ration inputs. A large change in availability and price can force changes in cropping and feeding decisions for a wide swath of farm operators.

Two major shifts in forage production
U.S. forage production has increased dramatically over the past century. By looking at dry matter production, we can more easily recognize the dry matter contribution of hay and silages in comparison to each other as well as their contribution to the whole. Aside from the overall increase, the two major trends occurring in U.S. forage production are:

  • Spiking downward trend in alfalfa production
  • Steadily increasing trend in corn silage production

The shift or inflection point for both these current trends can be traced to the 1990s. An increase in inclusion rates for corn silage, particularly in dairy rations, is at the root of the current corn silage trend.

The current alfalfa production trend started in the ’90s too, partly owing to the corn silage shift. The downward alfalfa trend accelerated around 2005 with increased corn acres for ethanol production and has been exacerbated by the broad regional droughts in 2011 and 2012.

Let’s cover the corn silage shift first. U.S. corn silage production peaked in the 1970s with record numbers of cattle, only to decline during the 1980s. Why did this occur? Declining cattle numbers are one driver.

Less obvious, perhaps, is that there can be some ration substitution between corn grain and corn silage to supply starch and energy. One main factor may have been corn grain price stagnation in the mid-1980s.

In later decades, we’ve seen a trend of increasing corn silage in dairy rations, helping drive the increased production of corn silage over the past two decades even as numbers of all cattle continue to decline.

US forage dry matter production

It’s only in the last few years that corn silage regained the total U.S. production levels seen in the 1970s. Note Figure 1, showing that corn silage dry matter production is fairly stable with little year-to-year variation from the production trend over time. You’d see more variation if looking strictly at corn silage acres harvested because of year-to-year yield variation.

In most locales, there is an opportunity to harvest more corn acres for silage in years when the silage yield per acre is down. This helps maintain corn silage as a reliable and stable forage source and probably contributes to the current trend toward increasing corn silage use.

Now let’s cover the decline in alfalfa production. The current trend began at approximately the same region of the figure as noted above for corn silage.

The widespread drought of 1988 may have kicked off or contributed to the shift in some way. At any rate, the decades-long trend of increasing alfalfa production had reversed by the 1990s.

Cattle Inventory

In the most recent decade, the Renewable Fuels Standard created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 is associated with an upward inflection point in long-term acreage and production trends for corn. Although less well recognized, this energy policy forced a change in alfalfa production as well. Big corn production states like Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana have lost one-third to one-half of their alfalfa acres during the past decade.

This shift, combined with regional droughts of 2011 and 2012, led to declining hay production and shortages that drove up hay prices and increased hauling distances for hay. In response, acres devoted to alfalfa increased in some Western states where corn is less prevalent, but not enough to offset the overall loss of alfalfa and all-hay production.

The Upper Midwest remained in alfalfa deficit through 2013 due to winter damage and stand loss. The 2013 alfalfa production was not above trend, and hay market prices remain somewhat elevated.

Will the decline in alfalfa hay production finally level or reverse upward? Will alfalfa compete successfully for acres against corn and other row crops in states where alfalfa acres declined in the prior decade?

Corn grain production has increased on a long-term trend line that began with the advent of hybrid corn in the 1920s. This ever-increasing trend may eventually help corn grain production “catch up” to overall corn demand in a way that relieves some acreage and commodity price pressure.

It isn’t clear whether corn commodity price capitulation in the current corn market is here to stay for more than a single growing season. The next few growing seasons will help determine that outcome.

But if corn price stabilizes in a moderating range, some acres may shift back to hay production over the next few years – at least until hay prices moderate to a similar degree. A time lag might be observed since perennial crop acres in hay aren’t likely to come roaring back all in one year.

corn grain production & commodity price

Crop commodity summary
Corn silage has a secure place in rations due to the value of its starch and energy content. Its price is closely tied to that of the corn grain that makes up half or more of corn silage energy content.

Alfalfa has long been the queen of forages, but production shortfalls in recent years have led to reduced usage and high hay prices. Look for a rebound in alfalfa seedings over the next few years if competing crop prices decline or hay prices stay relatively elevated for a couple years.

But don’t be too surprised if total acres remain stagnant because the average stand age has grown excessively long in some regions where producers delayed new seedings in favor of grain crops. If a good stand replacement rate unfolds, a younger average stand age overall could support a production rebound.

“Other hay” is a National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reporting category that excludes alfalfa but includes almost everything else that you might call hay. Included are warm-season grasses like bahiagrass, bermudagrass, sudangrass and teff; several species of clovers and other legumes; and cool-season grasses of many species.

Hay species in this large category are often grown in soil and climate circumstances where alfalfa and row crops are less suitable. The species vary regionally, often chosen for their adaptability in a specific environment. For these reasons, most of the “other hay” acres should continue providing substantial hay production.

Sorghum silage, forage sorghum and sorghum-sudangrass are often more successful than corn under heat and drought stress where corn struggles to be productive. Their use is relatively minor from a broad U.S. perspective but can be locally important and successful, particularly in semi-arid plains geographies and the Southwest.

US Forage dry matter production

Pasture is an important seasonal forage source for cattle, reported at 473,212,960 acres in the 2007 ag census. Although NASS does not report pasture yields, extensive regional drought likely reduced overall pasture tonnage harvested by animals, putting additional pressure on hay stocks in recent years.

Distillers grains availability and inclusion in rations has increased dramatically over the past decade. While not a forage, the substitution value of distillers grains has been documented for both corn grain and for protein sources such as soybean meal.

Additionally, distillers grains are offsetting hay in rations to some extent, particularly alfalfa hay, since both are mid-protein feedstuffs with similar protein content.

Distillers grains are therefore a key factor in hay production and utilization trends. While distillers grains are not high in physically effective fiber, this can be overcome by adding up to a pound of straw per day in dairy rations. Coarser hay used in cow-calf and feeder rations is generally not deficient in physically effective fiber, even with the inclusion of distillers grains in the ration.

Forage crop attributes and management practices on the forefront
Aside from the two larger trends in forage production, there are some very interesting changes taking place in the attributes and management of forage crop species – changes that will influence discreet forage production decisions at the farm operation level.

These are not likely to drive crop acreage trends and market pricing of forage crops over the next several years, but may influence the rate at which those trends unfold.

These attributes and practices can affect feed value, ration inclusion rates, and planting and harvest decisions.


Click here or on the image above to view it at full size in a new window.

Table 1 displays a compilation of forage crop attributes and management practices. One or more of these may cause you to re-evaluate your harvest maturity and scheduling, consider shifts in cropping patterns and rotations, or consider different forage harvesting equipment.

Each has a level of usefulness on individual operations that can range from zero to all-in. It’s important to consider the opportunities inherent in each of these attributes and practices. Uncover the potential fit with your operation, consider any pitfalls and then make the best forage crop management and feeding decisions for your operation.  FG

Disclaimer: The views and information presented in this article are provided for informational use only and are subject to change and potential bias, and must not be construed as market forecasts or commodity marketing advice.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

robin Newell
Robin Newell

Forage Marketing Manager
DuPont Pioneer