First cut hay harvest a mixed bag

Yields are average at best, which is worrying for a sector with exhausted feed stocks and stressed pastures

[UPDATED: July 7, 2020] There won’t be any bumper yields from Manitoba’s first hay cut and, despite storms that have left parts of Manitoba waterlogged last, not everywhere in the province has seen enough rain.

June saw the province’s first hay harvests, although most fields cut by the third week of the month were either targeted for dairy or hay marketers, John McGregor, co-ordinator for the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association Green Gold program said.

Beef producers largely expected to start hay harvest last week.

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Why it matters: Manitoba’s first cut won’t be breaking any records, and that’s bad news for an industry still dealing with pasture stress after two years of drought conditions.

Hay stands leading up to the first cut were average, at best, McGregor said, and many areas were expecting to fall short of normal.

Stands in southwestern and central Manitoba are closest to average, he said, while stands in the northwest, Interlake and eastern Manitoba are likely to fall short.

“What I’m hearing across the province is that we’re looking at yields that are below to possibly average,” McGregor said. “I haven’t heard anybody saying they’re getting average to above. We’re looking at a situation where we’ve got areas that are dry. We’ve got areas that were affected by the frost, some that were affected by the cool conditions.”

Eastern Manitoba was particularly hit by frost at the end of May. Yields in those areas are down, McGregor confirmed.

The Interlake and Parkland were also among the regions hardest hit by feed shortages last year, with over a dozen municipalities declaring states of agricultural disaster last fall.

Shawn Cabak, provincial livestock specialist based in central Manitoba, says he does expect some fields to produce close to average hay, largely from stands that are younger or better managed. Older stands in central Manitoba were struggling due to low precipitation earlier this season, he said.

“Forages really need the moisture to yield, so some of those older fields are going to suffer in yield,” Cabak said.

Moisture conditions took a sudden turn in parts of the province from June 28 to July 1. Areas from Brandon north to Minnedosa and Neepawa saw up to 214 millimetres of rain by official counts, sparking states of local emergency, serious flooding, road washouts and fears that the dam at the Rivers reservoir might fail thanks to what the province has called a one-in-1,000 year flood event.

Areas surrounding that hard hit patch from Souris to Oakburn, and northeast to Lake Manitoba, saw anywhere from 120 to 160 millimetres out of the same round of storms.

Prior to that, however, those same regions had seen little rain.

Up to June 24, much of southwestern Manitoba had seen half or less its normal rainfall, along with parts of central Manitoba, the Parkland and the western part of the Interlake.

McGregor was also not ringing the alarms on the hay season yet, even prior to the storms.

“This is the first cut,” he said in the third week of June. “It’s not even completely off yet and when we look at the alfalfa, we’ve got a second cut that’s quite possible, and in some cases, a third. Those crops can be a lot better.”

One farmer’s flood, another’s feast

For much of the province, those same storms so devastating to some areas of the west also brought much needed moisture.

Much of central Manitoba, parts of the east and some parts of the Interlake saw 20 to 40 millimetres June 28 to July 1, as did a swath of the Parkland along the Saskatchewan border and northeast to Ethelbert. Elsewhere, western Manitoba and the northwestern Interlake saw 40 to 80 millimetres fall on the previously dry region.

Pam Iwanchysko, provincial livestock specialist in the northwest, had seen only 2-1/2 inches of rain around Dauphin prior to June 24. At the same time, she added, those scant rainfalls were timely for hay production and she had expected that more carefully managed fields in her area would yield near normal.

“There are some that were well-managed hayfields that look okay and then there’s others that, having no fertilizer or any type of management, are probably going to be very low yielding,” she said. “And we did have a spot of frost in some areas.”

The region saw two to three inches out of the first storm June 28, she noted, which, while she expects the added moisture to hinder immediate harvest, she also expects it will improve the outlook for second cut.

Mark Good of Alonsa expects the rain will bolster his grass hay, although damage had already been done to older alfalfa stands after two years of drought conditions. Pastures in his area were already starting to burn off the week prior to the storms, Good said.

Alonsa reported 125.5 millimetres (or almost five inches) of rain between June 28 and July 1, according to provincial ag weather data.

“It was a little bit more rain than we needed all in one shot, but it definitely filled in all the low spots and should mean that we’re going to get a few more rain showers soon,” he said.

Ray Bittner, Iwanchysko’s counterpart in the Interlake, also said the moisture was, “a general blessing.”

Pastures in both the Interlake and Parkland were looking dire prior to the late June rains.

“It’s not looking great,” Iwanchysko said June 24, pointing to one producer who, at the time, had already reported dried out dugouts and was still feeding cattle in the pen.

“His pastures are being eaten by grasshoppers,” she said. “It’s very severe in some areas.”

Areas west and north of Dauphin have noted significant grasshopper issues, she said.

Some areas still dry

Dugouts were still dry farther north towards Ethelbert even after the late June rains, Iwanchysko said; and, while the northern Interlake broke its dry spell, the southern and eastern Interlake cannot say the same.

The area saw less than 20 millimetres of rain in much of the southern and eastern Interlake, including Arborg and Gimli. Those regions include some already critically dry leading up to late June. Areas of the Interlake south of Narcisse had seen less than 60 per cent normal rainfall as of June 28.

“Much of the pasture and hay crop are dependent on rains in the period of May 1 to July 1,” Bittner said. “After that point it is very hard for forages to recover, because they generally get overgrazed when early moisture is short. Plants with no leaves have a hard time to collect sunshine.”

The same October blizzard that caused infrastructure damage throughout the region was showing its silver lining earlier this season, however, he noted, since that moisture has now become critical to recharging dugouts, many of which dried out last year.

Both Iwanchysko and Bittner warned producers against premature turnout earlier this year. Cold temperatures this spring sparked concern about slow pasture regrowth which — mixed with several years of dry weather, overgrazing due to feed shortages and similarly cold starts — could lead to pasture damage this year, the two warned.

The two also expressed concern over low nutrition and rebreeding, a worry that came to fruition last year with open rates up to 30 per cent in some herds in the Interlake.

No buffer

The cold spring also raised the stakes for this year’s hay crop, according to Iwanchysko.

Producers were faced with yet another extended feeding season this winter, both from pastures running out last fall and delayed regrowth this spring. Some producers were forced to once again turn out cattle too early on already stressed pastures, Iwanchysko said, while any hay carry-over they might have had is now gone.

“I would say we’re kind of in the same boat as we were last year yet,” Iwanchysko said. “Only because feed supplies are at zero. There’s no carry-over whatsoever, because of our long, cold spring. Nobody has anything that’s accessible for sale. Anybody who has anything left over, they’re keeping it.”

Iwanchysko expects northwestern producers may once again run out of pasture or have to start supplemental feeding, depending on future rainfall.

Annual options

Annual feed options, such as cereals for greenfeed, are off to a better start in central Manitoba, according to Cabak.

Both Iwanchysko and Cabak say they have seen indications of producers turning to greenfeed and alternative feeds this season. Iwanchykso has fielded questions on various greenfeed crops, she said, while Cabak has heard reports of additional greenfeed and silage acres.

Early-seeded annual forages are also showing potential in the Interlake, Bittner said, “however, later-seeded crops are slow and patchy.”

“To add to the challenge, cutworm damage has been apparent in greenfeed cereals and corn for silage crops,” he said.

Cabak urged producers to start planning their alternative feeds early if they anticipate short hay yields.

“Even if the perennial forage supplies aren’t going to be adequate, there’s lots of options to meet the livestock winter forage requirements,” he said.

UPDATE: This article was updated to take into account recent rains.

About the author

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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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