Hay producers have some hope that the last two years of difficulty are behind them, at least in the western part of the province.
Initial reports suggest hay stands look promising in most of the province, although some frost damage was noted in the east as of the end of May.
Why it matters: Manitoba’s hay crop looks like it might be creeping back up to more normal harvest after two years of significantly poor stands, at least in central and western Manitoba.
John McGregor, co-ordinator of the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association’s Green Gold program, noted that alfalfa stands in central and western Manitoba were, “coming along very well,” as of the first week of June.
The annual program monitors alfalfa quality in an effort to nail down a yearly “hay day,” or the point when hay reaches the optimal quality to cut.
McGregor said stands he is monitoring in west and central Manitoba are about 18 inches high as of the start of June.
“They’re seeing some pretty good growth,” he said. “The heat is helping quite a bit.”
While the province saw a slow start to the spring with cold temperatures well into May, temperatures also soared into the high ‘20s starting at the May long weekend.
As of June 8, the Green Gold program was reporting average stands of 25 inches in central and 21 inches in western Manitoba, while harvest in some areas had been reported by June 10.
There were a few reports of frost damage in either the west or central Manitoba, due cold temperatures May 30, he noted, “but it doesn’t sound like there’s anything really major that I’ve heard of.”
Areas from Somerset to Minnedosa, as well as Alonsa and Minitonas also saw temperatures between -1 C and -2 C for three hours or more at the end of May, according to provincial weather data.
Frost, floods hit in the east
Stands in southeastern Manitoba are more delayed. McGregor estimated that eastern stands fell about four inches shy of their western counterparts by the start of June.
Stands fall even shorter compared to central Manitoba. As of June 8, the Green Gold program was reporting average eastern stands at 18 inches.
Those stands, likewise, have reported the most frost damage after temperatures dropped below -4 C for several hours in parts of the province May 30.
Eastern Manitoba and the Interlake took the brunt of the frost that hit Manitoba at the end of May, although areas around Neepawa and Kenton also saw temperatures below -2 C.
“There are fields that got hit very hard with the frost and there are other ones that just got lightly touched,” McGregor said.
One eastern field in his sample group, “got pretty well leaf burn on the alfalfa right down to the bottom,” he said, “and, as I say, other fields it was mostly the top leaves. Those leaves that got hit, they’re going to dry off and fall off.”
At the time, he said, it was yet unclear whether those hard hit fields would have to come back right from the crown of the plant.
Fields in Eastern Manitoba abruptly went from moisture starved to underwater in places after a string of storms brought up to 150 millimetres of moisture to the region over the second weekend of June.
Overland flooding caused a state of emergency over the weekend in the R.M. of Stuartburn.
The June 9 Manitoba crop report noted that many pastures and hay fields in the southeastern part of the province were under water and that “forage productivity is expected to be severely impacted.”
The province expects that impacted farmers will not be able to take off their first cut.
McGregor had already expected that first cut might be delayed in the area, and harvest volumes impacted by both frost and previously dry conditions, compared to central and western Manitoba.
McGregor’s data does not extend into the Interlake, since no producers in that area signed on to submit samples to the Green Gold program this year.
His northernmost submission, a field in Beausejour, showed only limited frost damage, despite reported temperatures of -3.5 C for five hours, according to the province’s ag weather network.
Temperatures in the Interlake May 30 dropped below -3 C for up to seven hours in places like Lake Francis, with a low point of -4.2 C for seven hours in Narcisse.
Garry Klassen, who farms near Arborg, says he has noted little frost damage, despite temperatures of -2.6 C registered for six hours May 30, according to the province.
“I would say they’re not too bad if we’re going to get rain here soon,” he said.
Klassen was echoed by fellow Interlake producer, Darrel Dueck.
Dueck does not have alfalfa stands this year, but said both his corn and grass are faring well, although some of his neighbours reported significant frost damage on their corn.
“It’s pretty dry,” he noted.
According to data from the CoCoRaHS weather monitoring network, the same storms that dropped several inches of rain in southeastern Manitoba dropped less than an inch of rain over much of the Interlake.
Breaking the cycle?
Klassen also hopes his area might be breaking the cycle of feed shortage that it has been stuck in for the last several years.
Last year marked the second that most of Manitoba earned a place on the federal livestock tax deferral program, a program which requires an area to fall short of half its normal long-term hay forage harvest in order to qualify.
Concerns over short feed also prompted over a dozen municipalities in the Parkland and Interlake to announce states of agricultural emergency, as well as a round of provincially-sponsored seminars on making due with short feed over the winter.
The start of spring in 2020 gave little cause for optimism, as cold temperatures delayed spring regrowth. The delay, along with stretched feed supplies, caused provincial livestock specialists to issue warnings against early turnout, similar to spring 2019.
Provincial specialists warned that premature turnout would tax pastures that had already been taxed over the last several years of overgrazing, and that the poor pastures, in turn, might lead to similarly high open rates as parts of the Interlake saw last fall.
Veterinarians in the Interlake noted regular open findings of 30 per cent or more in fall 2019.
McGregor echoed producer hopes on forage harvest, at least in central and western Manitoba, this year.
“When I look at the central and the western area, they’re off to what I would consider a normal start,” he said. “They’re growing. The alfalfa seems to be coming along. It’s probably right on track for a typically normal type of year.”