FORAGE Hay yields are up compared to last year, but many areas are still a long way from ‘good’
Manitoba is seeing its best hay year in two years, but given how dismal yields were in 2018 and 2019, that’s a low bar.
Poor growing conditions both last year and the year before had pastures fall short of production, hay yields in areas dropping to half or less of normal and dugouts drying. Producers reported surges in culling and rising forage prices. Shortages prompted the government to launch seminars on stretching winter feed, while over a dozen municipalities in the Interlake and Parkland declared states of agricultural disaster.
Experts are still expecting a feed shortage, albeit a smaller one than the last few years.
This year’s crop, particularly in the second cut, has offered more optimism.
Early first cuts this season did not impress, according to John McGregor, hay expert with the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association. Cool temperatures (including frost damage) and lack of early precipitation left the best areas of the province just scraping towards average yields as of late June.
“The second cut does seem to be getting somewhat closer to normal on the alfalfa side of it,” he said, noting he has heard similar reports from those laying down a third cut or beef-quality grass mixes.
“The real positive side is a lot of producers, because we’ve had two bad years back to back, a lot of producers have put in a lot of extra greenfeed and silage,” he said, noting that cereal silage yields so far have been “very good” while the incoming corn crop is likewise promising.
The association has noted more forage up for sale, he added, with prices slightly lower than this time last year.
“There’s not as much demand for feed as there was last year,” he said. “Last year at this time, it was obvious that we were going to be short of hay. This year, we’re still going to be short of hay, but not to the same amount.”
Andy Keen of Manitou says he is pleased with his hay harvest so far, having just finished his second cut. Both cuts have been above average, he said, while the possibility of a third cut is still on the table.
It’s been a pleasant change from the last few seasons.
“We’ve been emptying the feed yard here for the last two years, so I’d like to have some inventory going in to fall,” he said.
His annuals, likewise, look promising. Silage corn got a timely shot of moisture around pollination timing, he noted, although he would prefer more rain to finish off the crop.
Pastures still running dry
Pasture conditions, however, still threaten to chip away some of those gains.
Pastures across the province were already starting from behind this year, given weather stresses and, in many areas, overgrazing. Producers saw their feeding seasons expanding from both ends during the last two years, with poor regrowth stunting spring growth and little moisture through the growing season.
This year, cool temperatures in April and May once again delayed pastures, leading provincial extension staff to issue the, now familiar, warning against premature turnout.
Keen says the next few weeks will tell whether they are in a similar feeding situation this year.
“We’re right on the verge here of basically going backwards,” he said. “We’ve been there once earlier. We never got the early-spring rains, so we were pretty worried and then they really bounced back. But we’re kind of almost getting there again.”
Those pastures will need more rain if they are to hold out much longer, according to Keen.
Some areas, however, have benefited from recent rain, McGregor said.
“Some of the pastures that were not growing very well, they’re starting to recover a bit and there’s kind of an optimism there that they’re going to produce a little bit more forage and they’re not going to have to feed (the cattle) their cut hay as early as some were expecting three or four weeks back,” he said.
Pastures in the southwest were “doing well,” according to the Aug. 18 provincial crop report, while second-cut hay was average yielding and silage was gearing up to be average or above. Second-cut yields in central Manitoba, meanwhile, ranged between 800 and 1,400 pounds an acre, while pastures were going dormant thanks to lack of rain and grasshopper damage. Greenfeed and silage so far had “mediocre to average” yields, while corn silage crops had good growth.
In the east, second-cut beef hay was coming in between average and 50 per cent below average, pastures ranged from fair to good and dugouts were half full or less in areas that dodged major rainstorms.
North still hard hit
Hay has been more disappointing in the northwest and Interlake.
Pam Iwanchysko, provincial livestock specialist in the northwest, says hay has been better than 2018 and 2019, although yields were still average or below average. Some spotty, but timely, rains have helped the forage crop, she noted.
“Things are looking a little better, but certainly we’re still looking at that forage shortfall as previously thought might happen,” she said, pointing to this year’s delayed spring conditions.
Annuals, however, may be able to fill some feed gaps. Iwanchysko reported “very good,” corn silage and greenfeed. Straw also, “looks very good at the moment,” she said. “There’s quite a bit of growth on the annual crops in terms of straw growth. If they can source some of that, they’ll be able to stretch their feed supplies, hopefully.”
Like Keen, however, pastures in the northwest are a problem.
Some producers were still forced to put cattle out too early this spring, Iwanchysko said, compounding several years of pasture stress.
“We’re seeing pastures basically drying up — no regrowth,” she said.
She expects producers may need to start supplemental feeding or find a “sacrifice paddock” to tide cattle over until winter.
Grasshoppers have also significantly hurt some pastures, she said.
Dugouts are low to adequate, she noted, and producers will have to watch water quantity and quality should the area not get more rain.
Ray Bittner, a farmer in the north Interlake and former livestock specialist with the province, reported similar conditions.
The Interlake is, “having a better year than the last few,” he said.
Both greenfeed and corn silage are better than average, and alfalfa is likely near average, although alfalfa-grass mixes have fallen short.
“Native grasses and continuous pasture is challenged, to say the least,” he said.
He, too, pointed to grasshopper issues.
The province has reported some Interlake producers taking cattle off pasture to feed, according to the Aug. 18 crop report.
“We have a feed shortage out there,” McGregor cautioned. “We’re still short of feed. Producers are going to need to access some feed, get some straw put up to stretch those supplies, manage the feed they have with forage testing and just to see that they can feed the right kind of forage at the right time for their cattle.”