With 2011 shaping up to be a banner year for grain and other crop prices, many forage growers are mulling over their options for tearing up hay and pasture ground in order to capitalize. Paul Craig, senior Extension educator with Penn State University, suggests keeping the following in mind as you work your way through the decision-making process:

  • Yield tradeoffs. “It’s all about taking a look at the big picture,” says Craig. “That translates into getting the best yields whether you stick with forages or plant a grain crop. You might be thinking that it won’t pay to take a field out of forage production if you have hefty input costs for planting a corn crop. But you have to remember that better alfalfa stands need to be managed for high production, with topdressing and pest control applied as needed. Part of your calculation also has to be that it costs just as much to mow, rake and bale a crop producing 1-1.5 tons/acre as it does to harvest a stand producing ¾ ton/acre.”

  • Fertility management. With purchased fertilizer costs on a sharp upward track in recent years, Craig notes that levels of K have dropped off in many fields as a result of forage removal. “If you opt to keep that stand in forage production, topdressing K2O is going to be critical to achieve high yields,” he points out. “But if you rotate to corn, those fields with low fertility levels will need to be replenished for optimum grain levels, too.”

  • Root/crown injury. The condition of stands coming out of the winter months should also be considered. Saturated soil conditions and high groundwater levels affect development of smaller roots from taproots, Craig notes. “These secondary roots provide anchoring and nutrient and water uptake. Injury to these vital plant structures can result in greater risk for heaving, slower dormancy recovery and reduced nutrient uptake during periods of potential high growth rate. If you’re not going to get top yields because of plant injury, it’s another reason to think about rotating into corn or soybeans.”

    A spreadsheet designed to help producers determine what prices they’ll need to get for their hay to match corn prices of varying levels was developed by University of Wisconsin Extension educator Ken Barnett. Access the Hay Price Calculator here.

    To use the spreadsheet, a grower enters price and yield information for hay and corn in his or her region and also inputs cost-of-production figures – fertilizer, seed, pesticides, fuel, equipment repairs and maintenance, land cost, labor, interest and insurance and depreciation. Prices per ton for 13%-moisture and 100%-dry matter hay will be calculated.