Low soil moisture levels could dampen alfalfa and other forage growth in parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, according to specialists from those states.

“We do have a dry soil, generally, across the state at this point. That is going to hurt first cutting if we don’t have some moisture before spring,” said Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension forage specialist.

He reported Wisconsin’s forage situation at the recent March Industry Extension Forage Advisory Council meeting in La Crosse, WI.

Stephen Barnhart, Iowa State University Extension agronomist, and Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota equine specialist, also discussed forage conditions in their states.

“Our western part of our state is in worse shape than the eastern part,” said Iowa State’s Barnhart. He added that there has been little rain for nine months and erratic snow cover there. “What we will get this year is probably first cutting and maybe (hay) into early June, but that’s about all unless we get some significant moisture before the growing season. And that goes for pastures. Our pastures were really beat up last year because of the extended drought.”

Martinson reported snowfall levels as “pretty good” in Minnesota but admitted that some areas of the state were very cold without snow cover from late December through early January. “I make no predictions, but isn’t there potential for winter injury every year? We’ll just wait and see,” she said.

Undersander and Barnhart suggested that growers assess alfalfa stands carefully. (See the Assessing Alfalfa Stand Condition In The Spring fact sheet authored by Undersander.)

“We were dry going into fall and probably didn’t get the root reserves, so if we have a green-up and freeze back, we’re going to be in some level of hurt,” Undersander added.

Growers with thin alfalfa stands seeded last spring or fall – and there are a number of fields in that shape, he said – should disk them and reseed rather than interseed. An interseeded crop would compete too much with what’s left of the stand, the Wisconsin expert said.

If a stand is winter-injured, he recommended not delaying harvest to give plants time to recover.

“It probably would be the safe thing to do and help the stand. But we need the forage in most parts of the state and we need dairy-quality forage. If we wait, we’re not going to have that, especially with high grain prices. My approach is to sacrifice the stand if necessary for high-quality forage at this point.”

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In Iowa, high corn prices certainly played a part in reducing supplies of dairy-quality hay, Barnhart said. Iowa hay stocks for Dec. 1, 2012, at 1.82 million tons, were down by 33% from the 2011 level, which was 10% lower than what hay stocks were in 2010.

“Prices are sky-high. Dairy-quality hay, through our auctions, is $270-340-plus and as high as $400/ton.” Fair- and good-quality hay sells for $180-250/ton, forcing beef and sheep producers to resort to crop residues for fall and winter feeding, he said.

New forage plantings totaled less than 100,000 acres from 2011 to 2012, down 30% from the average acreage planted during the 2006-2010 period, Barnhart said.

“Producers really moved toward corn and beans on whatever marginal farmland they could plow up (last year). We still have producers interested in alfalfa, though. They have questions all the time about getting back into it. There is continued interest in it.”

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