La Crosse, Wisconsin

Producers scrambling for extra forage, some options in short supply

BY JANE FYKSEN, CROPS EDITOR |

The drought has turned many usual cropping practices topsy-turvy. Seed companies have already sold this summer a lot of products they normally sell in the spring. There’s more interest in cover crop mixes to sequester nutrients – especially nitrogen left behind by this year’s drought-stricken corn. There’s great demand for spring forage. And some producers who’ve gone gung-ho on corn, figuring they’ll just purchase relatively inexpensive hay, might be wise instead to consider some more acres of alfalfa next year and beyond.

Agri-View visited this week with Dan Foor, CEO, and Jeff Curran, vice-president of sales and marketing, both with La Crosse Seed Seed, based in La Crosse. In business over 65 years, this Upper Midwest forage-focused company also has locations in Madison, and Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and South Dakota.

They’ve been seeing much-brisker-than-usual sales of certain crops from farmers scrambling to get something in the ground to harvest prior to winter and/or early next spring. “We’re in crunch time right now,” notes Curran of new alfalfa fields going in and successfully establishing before cold weather hits. And because of the drought, his seed company has sold large amounts of peas and oats, peas and triticale, peas and barley, straight oats and grasses like winter-hardy annual ryegrass – things more typically sold in the spring. The pipeline for some of those is pretty dry. Farmers now are looking more to straight ryegrass for emergency forage.

Some producers are also, for instance, foregoing a spring cutting of rye to get forage this fall instead. Foor says there’s been “incredible demand” for fall rye and winter triticale.

Curran and Foor say the window is closing quickly on crops to plant now for forage this fall. Likewise, they say it’s about to slam shut on a Natural Resources Conservation Service program, EQIP, that has cost-sharing available for farmers in about the southern half of state looking at planting costs for establishing cover crops. The deadline for applying is this week, Aug. 24. It might be financially worthwhile to get in under the wire for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program for a cover crop that can be grazed or harvested for forage. (Farmers with crop insurance will need to check with their agent to make sure the cover crop does not impact their insurance payments or coverage for 2013 though.)

Curran says there’s “still some opportunity” to over-seed alfalfa with tall fescue or ryegrass, which holds the potential for greater forage production next spring. More producers than usual will also likely be trying some frost-seeding late winter on thinning pastures and this winter, even alfalfa fields (which are rarely frost-seeded). Clovers are typically the choice for broadcast seeding, typically in March.

In general, more pasture improvement will need to be done than is typical. Some of the grasses and legumes graziers in particular might be in tighter supply because of increased drought-induced demand.

La Crosse Seed Seed is gearing up for increased interest in cover crops, too – mixes of things like Tillage radish, Tillage RootMax annual ryegrass with or without clover and/or oats. That’s the way cover crops work best – in a diverse mix, these seed experts say.

Foor says that for farmers who haven’t used cover crops in the past, this might be an opportunity to try a few different things.

Curran says they attended a national meeting earlier this year of government agency personnel, academics and producer cover-crop veterans. He says there’s even been a catch phrase developed for what’s a mounting push for farmers to plant cover crops. It’s “Don’t Farm Naked,” i.e. use a cover crop instead.

Foor says a lot of corn this year, because of the drought, didn’t utilize all the nitrogen that was put on. Farmers risk losing that N before they can get another crop planted next year through leaching and volatilization. Going with a cover crop this winter can sequester nutrients and save having to reapply as much next year.

Curran says radishes bring up nutrients to where the next crop can source them. He says they can actually break up hard pan and facilitate greater moisture infiltration into the soil, without running the risk of erosion. It’s referred to as “bio-drilling,” with taproots down to six feet and tubers a foot to a foot-and-a-half long.

Curran is anticipating a possibly greater demand than typical for alfalfa seed come spring. He’s worried heat-and-drought-stressed alfalfa is going into winter not as strong as otherwise – especially older stands. More alfalfa could be lost over winter than in other years.

Further, these seed company execs say alfalfa acreage, nationally, is at its lowest point since 1947. With hay prices between $250 and $400 a ton (in large part because of corn displacing so much alfalfa ground of late), dairy and livestock producers might not be able to count on just filling in with relatively inexpensive hay from a neighbor, for example, as they themselves concentrate on more corn. “They really need to evaluate what they’re cropping plans are going to be,” stresses Foor. With the corn craze refueled next year by anticipated high prices this winter, hay ground is apt to remain tighter, leading to higher prices for alfalfa and even grassier hay. Producers might want to rethink reliance on purchased hay and increase their own acreage, nudging out some corn silage acres perhaps.

That might happen for another reason. Corn seed might be in shorter supply come spring because of the drought. That might encourage farmers to return to planting more forage.

© Copyright 2012, Agri-View, Madison, WI.