The Manitoba Forage Council’s Green Gold program, which provides a forecasting service for optimizing harvest times for first-cut alfalfa, will be keeping a close eye on the progress of this year’s crop, just as it has for the past 17 years.
John McGregor, who gathers and tests alfalfa samples each spring under the program for the Manitoba Forage Council, said that the traditional method of cutting alfalfa at the early-bloom stage risks missing the mark because in recent years, unusually cool spring weather followed by extreme warming can make the crop mature faster.
In such cases, waiting for the first flowers to appear could see the relative feed value (RFV) of the forage dip to 110, instead of the optimal 150 prized by dairy farmers.
The first cut of alfalfa starts on almost the same day throughout the province, said McGregor, although there may be some slight variability depending on whether the soil is sandy or clay.
“In the good old days, a lot of farmers would wait until they saw the first flower in the field. Now, in a lot of cases, it might be best at the early-bud stage or pre-bud stage,” he said.
In some years, optimal first cut might come as early as late May, while other years, it’s not ready until mid-June.
The Green Gold program provides alfalfa growers with an early-warning system on crop development with notices distributed by the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, the MFC website, and via email and local radio and newspapers.
Missing the optimal window could result in losses of three to five RFV points per day. The program aims to give producers five to seven days advance warning so that they can get their equipment ready and time their harvest for best results, he added.
Modern dairy cows require RFV 150, while beef cows do best on 110-120 RFV, and young heifers need 130-135 RFV. Forage that matches those specs is able to capture a premium price.
“Depending on the market, RFV can make or break a deal,” said McGregor. “Guys will cut hay for the specific markets that they have.”
Until this year’s crop is cut and sold, the price of alfalfa is anyone’s guess, he said. However, based on supplies left over, McGregor expects prices to be “about average depending on rain and yield on subsequent cuts over the season.
Despite the lack of snowfall over much of the province last winter, mild weather has kept winterkill to a minimum, he added.