January weather was especially rough in many areas of the Midwest, and with most of February and all of March in front of us, many growers counting on spring forage could be in a bind. While it’s not yet determined how forage stands may be affected, alternating mild conditions mixed with frigid temperatures aren’t doing pastures or hay fields any favors. Depending on the region, livestock type, and forage source, it’s safe to say livestock producers could be planning to augment forage stands as soon as possible.
Planning and acting quickly are both important. Having a solid understanding of what your alfalfa stands may look like in a couple months will help. Alfalfa injury or death from cold winter weather can occur many ways:
- Lack of adequate drainage – poorly drained, heavy clay soils increase the likelihood of frost heaving during late weather and into early spring. Taproots become exposed to winter weather, winds, and disease. If adequate stubble wasn’t left behind last fall, the chances of snow cover and insulation increase the probability of injury.
- Low fertility – namely potassium. Potassium increases plant health, helping defend alfalfa from disease. More important, potassium helps maintain sufficient energy (or carbohydrate) storage in the plant. These carbohydrates keep the plant alive during the winter and help it awaken and recover in spring. Late summer and fall present the perfect time to test and supplement potassium levels, if not all soil fertility.
- Ice – Besides harvest timing and variety selection, another reason alfalfa stands fail due to cold is too much ice or being encased in ice. Whether it’s low-lying areas of stands after heavy rains, or just periodic snow melting and freezing again, when ice surrounds the root and crown buds, oxygen is cut off and carbon dioxide cannot disperse.
When winterkill is expected, get out and check your fields. Dig up roots and check for winter-injury. Find out how to judge root damage here. Another resource is an alfalfa ring. Monitoring stand counts is crucial for predicting production in the near term and during the life of the stand.
Whether fall or spring, counting plants and stems is an exercise every alfalfa producer should understand. Contact us to request your own Forage First® alfalfa ring.
Enhancing your Alfalfa or Grass Stand
When alfalfa or grass stands must be enhanced, there are several options to consider. How quickly forage will be needed is usually a deciding factor. When earlier is better, consider a small grain or a small grain mixed with forage peas. These options can be planted as soon as field conditions allow in April/May and are usually ready for harvest in 60 to 90 days, depending on tonnage and/or quality requirements.
When higher quality is needed, small grains should be harvested at late boot stage, whereas heifers/dry cows/beef cattle can tolerate a later cutting, around soft dough stage. Oats and peas are widely used in the upper Midwest, but peas mixed with spring barley or spring triticale should be considered as well. Our SiloBuster Pea Mixes are excellent choices here.
Cool-season grasses can also help legume or grass stands by improving quality and adding harvest flexibility. Enhancing stands with cool-season grasses in spring usually means a noticeable stand and yield improvement by mid-late summer. Annual ryegrasses (including intermediate and Italian ryegrass), as well as Festulolium, provide an ideal opportunity for emergency forage. Traditionally simple to seed, they’re quick to establish and increase summer performance when stands need to be extended. Recommended Forage First® options include:
- Fusion XL Festulolium – a hybrid of meadow fescue and Italian ryegrass that provides the best of both worlds: fast germination and establishment of ryegrasses, paired with the increased summer performance and drought tolerance of fescue. In most environments, Fusion XL should persist for 2-3 years, perfect for extending perennial stands.
- Tetrabana XL Italian Ryegrass – a highly palatable ryegrass perfect in areas of pasture receiving increased traffic and in low-lying areas. Italian ryegrass is ideal for spring seeding, as it remains vegetative in the seeding year (offering more harvest flexibility) and then becomes reproductive in year two after a winter vernalization period.
- Jump Start Pasture Mix – a blend of ryegrass (annual and perennial) along with festulolium, excellent for overseeding existing stands. Improve forage yield in the short term while adding perennial grasses for longer lasting advancements. This has been a trusted product for producers across our footprint for many years.
If you don’t discover that forages or hay will be needed until late spring or summer, consider warm-season annuals like forage sorghum, sudangrass, and pearl millet. A couple sound options include:
- Dense Tonnage BMR BD – a management-friendly BMR sorghum x sudangrass hybrid offering greater harvest flexibility and increased digestibility over conventional hybrids. Brachytic dwarf (BD) characteristics improve standability and allow for a higher leaf:stem ratio. This hybrid is suitable for 1-cut silage systems, grazing, or baleage. When grazing, start at 18 to 20” and pull livestock off before 4 to 6” are reached – leaving at least 2 nodes. For baleage, cut at 40” tall or 40 days after planting, whichever comes first.
- Hercules BMR BD – a versatile BMR hybrid pearl millet suitable for silage, grazing, and dry hay. With pearl millets, there are no issues with prussic acid or sugarcane aphids.
- BaleMore – this straight sudangrass is the ideal summer annual if dry hay production is the plan. It’s quick to establish and quick to recover after cuttings, suitable for multiple grazing cycles or green chop.
Remember, frost and other stress can increase the chances for prussic acid and nitrate accumulation. Do not harvest drought-stricken plants within four days following a heavy rain and do not apply nitrogen prior to expected drought periods. If in doubt, cut at higher stubble height, as nitrates tend to accumulate in the lower stalk. If high prussic acid is found, wait one month prior to feeding. Unlike excessive nitrates, prussic acid will escape from the plant over time. When questions about livestock safety remain, get forage tested promptly.
Recognize what’s happening in your forage fields today. The earlier you can forecast and organize a game plan will increase your chances that your 2019 forage production will be maximized.