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Spring forage woes linger for first cut

Producers were glad to see forage jump in June, but many first-cut reports are still coming up short

Manitoba’s first forage cut is still showing the signs of a slow start this spring.

The Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association observed lower alfalfa yields compared to last year in some regions.

John McGregor, co-ordinator for the MFGA Green Gold program, says stands in eastern Manitoba were three inches shorter on average, coming in at 23 inches as of the last Green Gold report June 11.

Central Manitoba also came in short. The June 11 Green Gold report put average stand height at only 19 inches, while the June 4 Manitoba Agriculture crop report noted that some producers in the region were planting greenfeed to make up for poor hay stands.

The province also forecast below-average yields for the region.

“Generally, what we’re hearing is that the expected crop yield right now is, I’d say, below average, although, again, there are likely some areas that may be at average or maybe be even slightly above, and those areas were the ones that actually got the really good moisture conditions early in the growing season,” McGregor said.

“As far as quality goes, it kind of varies an awful lot across the province,” he also said. “But if I use the southeast as an example, what we’re seeing there is that the crop is advanced a little further ahead than what it was, say, last year. This year, it’s kind of in the late-flower stage, whereas last year at around that same time, it was in the late-bud stage.”

The reports match news from Manitoba Agriculture and beef producers.

Ben Fox, president of the Manitoba Beef Producers, says they have heard widely varied forage yields across the province, although he maintains that overall yields will balance out around average.

Parts of the northwest may have dodged the issues seen in the rest of the province. The province noted improved hay and pastures as of the last crop report, while Green Gold stands in the west were an average 26 inches high June 11 and the monitored field near Sifton showed a 30-inch stand.

Manitoba Agriculture pegged the improvement on the sudden jump in moisture. Most of the region was approaching or well over normal precipitation by June 10, according to the provincial crop weather report, while areas around Roblin jumped to the other moisture extreme in early June, with rainfall skyrocketing from near nothing to 300 per cent of normal in a matter of weeks.

Shifting strategies

Producers with short yields may be preparing to shift tactics to ensure adequate feed. “Hay Day,” the point where relative feed values sit at the optimal level for high-quality hay, has come and gone. Producers using feed for beef cattle, however, may opt to take the hit on feed value, letting the stands mature further before cutting.

“For a lot of producers, it comes down to what they’re feeding that forage to,” McGregor said. “If you’re a dairy producer and you want to get milk out of that or you want your heifers to grow on it, you don’t really want to start giving up the quality of the forage. On the other hand, if you’re a beef producer and you’re just wintering your cows through the winter and you’re not concerned about just prior to calving or milking period for those cows, you can get by on some very lower-quality feed. So in that case, yes, for a lot of those producers, they might want to let that crop go to maximum yield and then take the crop off.”

Darren Chapman, whose beef herd ranges near Virden, says both his alfalfa and mixed stands were shorter than normal when he started haying mid-June. Winterkilled grasses also thinned out stands and further cut into yield, he said, although he is hopeful that recent moisture will be enough to jump-start a second cut.

He is considering more corn silage as a way to offset the less than optimal first cut.

“We had kind of got used to the open falls and having an extended grazing period, but having to feed from the beginning of November on instead of December made a difference, and then feeding quite a bit later this year kind of dwindled the surpluses. (They’re) no longer there,” he said.

A short cut is bad news for producers with already low pasture reserves. Provincial experts warned this spring that stressed pastures might make for a shorter grazing season after dry conditions had some producers pushing their pastures last fall or putting cattle out too early this spring.

Those producers may be looking at another extended feeding period this fall, McGregor said.

“When you’ve pushed your pasture, one of the things you likely should be doing is trying to take cattle off that pasture early so that it can recover and go into winter in fairly good condition,” he said. “You want to get the root reserves built up in the grasses in the pastures.”

Fox added that farmers may be putting down more seed to ease any strain on feed supplies this fall.

“Obviously, beef producers who have cereal silage or to have the opportunity to plant even the polycrops, the cool-season grasses that offer some extended fall grazing for their livestock — I take advantage of that opportunity and I think it’s becoming more and more the norm for producers to be able to extend their grazing season through practices that even 10 years ago weren’t the most conventional, but now they’re getting to be more and more mainstream,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

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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