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Winterkill and the soggy Farm Belt: Now what?

Progressive Forage Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 24 May 2019

What we still don’t know, is how much alfalfa suffered winterkill. (What we hear, is it could be 50% to 70% from the Midwest through the northeastern U.S.) 

What we do know, is the Midwest has experienced the wettest spring on record since recordkeeping began for this aspect in the ’80s, and losses are widespread. The USDA reported 25% severe winterkill in Wisconsin, 18% moderate and 17% light, leaving only 40% undamaged.

Compounding the forage issue is with delayed corn plantings, dairies will be harvesting less silage tonnage in the fall. With the soggy spring, fewer corn acres will be planted altogether. As of May 20, the USDA reported only 35% of corn acres planted (five days behind last year and 11 days behind the average), when nearly 80% of corn is planted by that time in normal years. With a sharp decrease in corn acres, corn futures recently turned bullish.

Which leads producers to the “Oh crap, now what am I going to do?” moment, as dairies struggle to fill forage needs.

And (not to pile on the pain but only to address the reality), delayed planting and environmental issues can exacerbate crop disease (like tar spot in corn) and feed hygiene issues. Keeping an eye on weather between the V6 and R2 growth stages is the critical window to determine whether a fungicide would be helpful to prevent tar spot.

For articles addressing tar spot, read Tar spot in silage corn or How Will Delayed Planting Influence Crop Diseases in 2019?

Forage options

In the face of alfalfa winterkill losses, emergency forage options exist. Here are some options:

If tonnage is needed quickly – A small grain can be used to replace the loss of first-cutting alfalfa. Oats, triticale and barley can quickly fill the gap. Planting a small grain with peas can increase crude protein and palatability, but will not increase yield.

In some locations, even with a late June planting, sorghum-sudangrass, sudangrass and pearl millet can still yield a couple of cuttings. 

For longer-term yield – Corn for silage is usually among the highest yielding options to fill longer-term needs. 

Options for haylage could include planting Italian ryegrass with alfalfa, or seeding alfalfa. If dry hay is the goal, Italian ryegrass seeded with alfalfa, straight alfalfa or sorghum-sudangrass are options. 

A University of Wisconsin-Extension resource discussing options, timing and seeding rates can be found at the UW Extension website.

But even when the sun comes out (and decides to stay), remember to watch for the disease pressures that a wet spring can create further down the road.  end mark 

Lynn Jaynes
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