Cream of alfalfa crop to come up short

Dairy producers anticipate alfalfa shortfall as high quality first cut approaches

This field of alfalfa in Manitoba’s Interlake on June 12 got a boost with recent precipitation, but many forage crops are stunted due to cool temps and very dry soils this season.

Growers targeting high quality alfalfa are typically rolling by mid-June, but this year’s dairy quality hay might involve a lot of driving for little yield.

David Wiens, chair of the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, said he expects stand quality to be high, but that yield will likely to fall shy of normal.

Alfalfa crops, “look beautiful, but the plants are actually quite short,” he said. 

Wiens cited both cool temperatures earlier this spring and lack of moisture, both contributing to slow growth.

“Some years, we’re cutting by now,” he said June 2. 

Why it matters: Despite some rains in mid-May, livestock and hay producers say their concern around this year’s forage crop is still very much in the forefront as the first early cutters prepare to hit the field.

The Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association Green Gold program was reporting null values for several areas of the province as of its May 31 report. 

Terra Bergen, co-ordinator of the program, says fields do not send tests in until plants are 10 inches high.

The program targets a “hay day,” or the point where alfalfa is at the ideal feed value for high quality hay harvest, in various regions across the province each year. Hay Day has historically landed around June 11, according to the MFGA.

For fields that were reporting data May 31, alfalfa in central Manitoba, eastern Manitoba and the Interlake were averaging about 13 inches tall with 31 per cent crude protein. Fields in central Manitoba were creeping closer to ideal cut time according to relative feed value (RFV), and dropping about nine RFV per day. Alfalfa had slightly further to mature in eastern Manitoba and the Interlake before “Hay Day” values were reached. In the west, plants were averaging 11.5 inches tall, 32 per cent protein and had the farthest to go in terms of maturity.

Dairy producers and those growing high-quality hay for sale will be the first to see harvest numbers out of a crop that has garnered worry from the livestock sector. Much of the province spent spring in a state of severe to extreme drought, according to the Canadian Drought Monitor and, despite some rain in May, producers still say crops are lacking moisture.

Hay harvest timing saw a significant divide between beef quality and high quality growers in 2019, another year that kicked off with concerns over forage yields The province saw some forage harvest as Hay Day came and went across the province. Many beef producers, however, delayed, hoping to give short plants longer to grow and increase tonnage, at the expense of feed value.

Most hay cut by the third week of June last year—typically peak hay season across the province—was for dairy or hay sales, the MFGA reported in 2020, while most beef hay cuts started in late June or early July.

It’s a divide that will likely repeat itself this year, according to John McGregor, forage expert with the MFGA.

“It’s a little bit unfortunate in that if they had quality, they could dilute that using residuals, things like straw and some other poor quality feeds,” he said.

For dairy, he noted, the role of alfalfa is often to add protein to a corn silage ration, and generally farmers want quality high.

“I think the dairy side of it will still continue to try and go for quality and the beef side will, because of this year with the hay situation that we’re looking at, they’re probably going to go for quantity,” he said.

McGregor also expects crop to be short this year, sliding closer to 18-24 inches tall at harvest than a more typical 24-30 inches.

“That relates back to quite a few pounds of additional forage, of good quality forage,” he said.

Heat and continued lack of moisture may also see alfalfa start to mature rather than grow, causing a swift drop in feed value. Temperatures swung above 30C in the first week of June, and were expected to remain in the high ‘20s for days after.

In 2019, McGregor noted, early cuts were taken as short as 16 to 18 inches, “just to get some quality, and then hopefully with rainfall, their second or third cuts would be normal.”

Many producers are looking to fill in the gaps with annual crops, Wiens noted. Crops like forage oats have seen an uptick in popularity, he said, although many of those crops have also been slow to germinate so far.

“I think, for now, we’ve done what we can in terms of trying to get a number of different forages growing, hoping that something like forage oats or barley cut for green feed is going to help pull us through. It’s maybe a little bit early to tell,” he said.

Like almost all other hay producers, the future of his feed will depend highly on rain, he said. He expects that producers will get a better idea of their feed situation between now and the end of July, as the first cut is completed and green feed is brought in.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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