Rescuing future forage

One livestock expert has some tips on jump-starting new stands and squeezing production out of Manitoba’s currently stressed forage lands

“Rest and recovery is very important and that can increase forage production significantly.” – Shawn Cabak.

No one can change the weather but producers may still be able to limit the hit to hayfields, if not for this year, then at least in the future.

Manitoba’s livestock and forage producers seem poised for yet another year where dry weather takes centre stage.

Shawn Cabak, livestock and forage specialist with the province, noted the non-existent spring run-off this year and continued lacklustre rainfalls. His own area, around Portage la Prairie, has seen only 17 per cent of normal winter and spring precipitation.

Why it matters: Getting new forage off to a solid start won’t help much this year, but will buffer similar stresses to come.

Manitoba’s forage fields add those current moisture issues on to years of existing stress. Fields and pastures in some areas are now in their third or fourth year of drought conditions, including a critical shortage in 2019 that sent hay prices soaring to over $100 a bale.

With another seemingly dry season brewing, Cabak urged producers to consider how they might improve their stands.

Starting off right

Cabak pointed to the increased yield, protein and associated livestock gain that comes from not only having legumes in the seed mix, but ensuring they thrive.

Cabak urged producers not to back off on inoculant. Proper storage — cool and out of direct sunlight — is critical for protecting that inoculant, he said.

Seed left over from last year likely still has some viable inoculant, although producers should not expect it to be as potent as fresh seed, Cabak also said.

“I like to see 50-50 alfalfa grass blends for hay for beef production,” he said. “The grasses, they hold their leaves better if you have to flip the swaths, if you’re baling under drier conditions.”

Cabak warned producers to be cautious of too much alfalfa in their pasture blends, due to the risk of bloat, although he noted that other legumes, such as bird’s-foot trefoil, dodge that risk.

Producers also can leave off the nitrogen if the mix is at least half legume, he said, since those legumes will supply the other plants in the mix with enough of the nutrient. In that way, he noted, producers can save on fertilizer cost.

Phosphorus, however, is another story. Documents published by the province on perennial forage establishment suggest that 30 pounds an acre of phosphorus, “has shown to quadruple plant size within one week of emergence under ideal conditions.”

The same fact sheet urges producers to have a clean field — either through herbicide or greenfeed the previous year — as there are few in-field options to control weeds once forage is established.

Short term

While giving new stands a jump-start may bode well for future feed supplies, it does little to help any potential shortfall this year.

Rotational grazing pastures, however, can greatly increase forage production on that land, Cabak said, and even more so if it is combined with fertilizer.

Cabak suggested that rotational grazing might double a stand’s production for the year.

“Rest and recovery is very important and that can increase forage production significantly,” he said.

“By fertilizing your forage stand, you can increase production another 75 per cent over the rotational grazing,” he added. “The rotational grazing and fertilizer can increase production over continuous grazing by 3-1/2 times.”

Fertilizing also increases the water-use efficiency of the forage, he noted, a boon in a dry year.

Revamp

For stands more than five years old, it may also be time to renovate the field, Cabak said, although he acknowledged that as a more long-term solution than a potential solution for short feed this year.

“That’s not a strategy that you can go out this year and do it because it does take several years to renovate your stands, but these are some of the management practices that you can adopt to improve your overall forage production, not only in good years, but also those dry years.”

Those new stands must also leap the hurdles that come with dry weather during their establishment year.

It is still early to gauge this year’s perennial forage, he noted, pointing to recent cool weather with temperatures still routinely dipping well below freezing.

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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