As another April snowstorm hit last week, the owners of this hay wagon in northern Wisconsin probably wondered how long before they could put it to work. This week, the snow has melted and rain and sun are predicted.
Wild weather has made April a challenging month for hay growers awaiting new crop in many parts of the Upper Midwest. They’ve experienced frequent, and in cases heavy, spring snows; significant rains; and chillier-than-normal temperatures.
Yet spring’s late arrival has helped sell a lot of hay in recent weeks in Amy Freeburg’s southeastern South Dakota area. With her husband, Gary, and sons, Jory and John, she grows alfalfa on 2,500 acres near Gayville.
“A lot of people were thinking that we’d have an early spring like we did last year. So they fed up just about every bump of hay they had on hand. Now they’re in a position where they’re having to buy enough hay to get them through until we get into new crop,” she says.
That’s kept pressure on area hay prices. “It really hasn’t backed off any from the highs we were seeing early in the winter,” says Freeburg. “The good news for buyers is that, because we had such a dry year here last year, the hay that’s still available is of very good quality. That’s pretty unusual for this time of year.”
Wet, cold conditions kept Tim Goodenough, of Mindoro, WI, out of fields as of late last week. In early April, he’d anticipated he’d have all 350 acres of his new alfalfa seeded by mid-month.
“I can’t tell you exactly how many inches of snow and rain we’ve had this month. But it’s safe to say that we’ve had more moisture in April than we had all winter,” he says. Temperatures have been 20 degrees below the normal 50-degree F range for this time of year.
In some respects, he adds, this month’s weather isn’t all that unusual. “In the past two years, we’ve had a very early warm-up in the spring. I guess we probably got a little spoiled.”
Goodenough, a corn and soybean grower who will plant his first alfalfa crop in 15 years, expects some area farmers will change their cropping plans based on weather.
“People with existing alfalfa stands are waiting for things to warm up and green up so they can assess how bad winterkill was. We did have a fair amount of ice this winter. Some people could decide to tear up their stands and plant corn and beans instead.”
Once the weather finally turns, he anticipates being very busy. “It’s looking more and more like we’ll be planting corn and alfalfa at the same time. We’re going to have to double up on our efforts to get it all done in a timely fashion.”
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Northern Illinois growers are behind schedule for the same reason, reports Kendall Guither, who puts up alfalfa baleage on 450 acres near Walnut.
“At the start of the month, things were just starting to dry out and people were thinking about getting going on some spring fieldwork,” he says. “But then it turned wet and everything came to a standstill.”
Guither typically takes an aggressive five cuttings off most fields during summer. On many fields, he’ll also take a sixth cutting in November after the crop goes dormant. “We usually try to get going on our first cutting around May 1. This year, though, I’m thinking it will be closer to May 10.”
The good news: Topsoil moisture levels have improved in the area. “In some spots, we’re probably overly saturated. But after last year’s drought, we still have a long way to go on subsoil moisture. If it turns hot and dry again, it will pull a lot of that topsoil moisture out real quickly. And there just aren’t any kind of reserves down there for the alfalfa to tap into,” he says.
Southeastern South Dakota fields look to be in good shape, reports Freeburg. “After an extremely dry year last year, we’re feeling good about moisture levels, at least topsoil moisture levels, coming into the spring.”
Cold weather is of more concern, she adds. As of early last week, nighttime lows were still dropping into the upper 20s and lower 30s. “The week before, we had one night where it got down to 18 degrees. That’s stressful for the hay, but at least it’s better than single digits with a straight-line, north wind.”
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