Reports of winterkill in newly seeded and older alfalfa stands are coming from northeastern Wisconsin, south-central and southern Minnesota down through the Iowa and Illinois borders.
Other crops, some seeded to shore up short forage supplies, also are faring poorly, say forage specialists in Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.
That means Upper Midwestern livestock producers hoping for early, good-yielding first cuttings of hay will have to devise new seeding and feeding strategies, they add.
“We don’t have any excess forage,” says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension forage specialist. “As I was talking with farmers around Minnesota and Wisconsin this winter, I thought most of the dairies had enough to get through the first cutting but found that almost 20% of the farmers said they did not.”
He expects as much as 50% of the alfalfa in northeastern Wisconsin and probably 25-30% in the Madison area has been lost.
Much of the perennial ryegrass seeded as cover crops into corn silage stubble late last summer hasn’t survived the winter in Wisconsin, Undersander adds. In northeastern Iowa, ryegrass and orchardgrass are showing some winterkill damage, says Brian Lang, Iowa State University Extension agronomist.
Oats planted for forage to Nebraska fields in early April haven’t germinated either, says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist. “If it would just stay warm for more than two or three days, we could have emergence of any viable seeds and be able to make a determination,” he adds.
Bluegrass, which had filled in where cool-season pastures were overgrazed over the years, also isn’t making a comeback in parts of his state. “Last year the drought really hurt the bluegrass pretty severely, and we’re not seeing those areas greening up this year. Those patches are going to be weed spots later on in the season.”
Although some fall alfalfa seedings failed last year in Nebraska, Anderson says, no winterkill reports have come in to his office this late, wet and cold spring.
In the 10-county Iowa area that Lang covers, alfalfa winterkill is “very scattered, county to county, farm to farm. Even within fields, it’s very spotty. But I’ve seen some fields where it’s bad enough that there’s no point in keeping the stands.”
Near Waukon, IA, Bill Regan of Regancrest Holsteins just reseeded 6 acres of fall-seeded alfalfa – part of the land set aside for the Farm Progress Hay Expo to be held on his family’s land June 19-20. Large dairies nearby lost entire fields, he says.
Although new and older alfalfa stands are showing winterkill damage, some older stands have one thing in common, Lang adds.
“They were managed quite intensively last season, being cut on as little as a three-week harvest interval with six to seven cuts for the season.”
Above-normal temperatures and drought stress from 2012 caused the crop to flower sooner than normal, and its carbohydrate reserves hadn’t adequately replenished. That intensive of a cutting schedule makes it hard for the crop to survive a long winter, he points out.
“Everybody who pushed it a little bit will have lost some stands,” agrees Undersander. Reports are coming from all over Wisconsin. “It’s not entire regions. It’s low spots in many fields and entire fields just here and there. So it obviously relates to the variety and/or management to some extent last year. We had a lot of stress.”
The winter added more stress, with fields devoid of snow at times, as well as warming and freezing spells and a cold, wet spring, Undersander says. He predicts that, compared to last year’s growth, the growing season will be behind by one to two months.
“That means that planting sorghum-sudangrass is probably a bad choice (in Minnesota and central and northern Wisconsin). Brown mid-rib sorghum-sudangrasses are adapted to regions where the daily high is above 80 degrees, preferably 85 degrees.” They will grow in Southern Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, where growing degree days are longer, the forage specialist stresses.
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The fastest way to get tonnage on severely damaged new seedings or existing alfalfa fields? Seed a mixture of 2 lbs/acre oats with 20 lbs/acre peas, Undersander says. “We’re almost two weeks late on planting now, but that should give them close to 3 tons/acre sometime around early June or later depending on when they plant and harvest.”
The question is whether oat seed is available, he warns. Forage specialists from many states promoted oats as a fast-growing, fast-yielding forage substitute.
Fields with spotty, thin alfalfa stands can have a 10-lb/acre 50-50 mix of forage-type annual Italian and perennial ryegrasses drilled into patches or entire fields, Undersander advises. “That’s a relatively inexpensive treatment. The seed is a little over $1/lb.”
If growers want to take first cuttings from moderately damaged fields, he suggests interseeding 10 lbs/acre of Italian ryegrass. After first cutting, seed corn or, in areas warm enough, 20 lbs/acre of BMR sorghum-sudangrass.
Alfalfa can be interseeded into alfalfa stands less than 15 months of age, adds Stephen Barnhart, Iowa State University Extension forage specialist. In stands two years or older, consider interseeding red clover or a winter-hardy perennial forage grass, but don’t expect much production in the short term. He also mentions annual forage grasses like ryegrass, oats, teff or barley as fast-growing interseeding options.
Or plant a row crop, like corn, Barnhart says.
“If we’re going to take alfalfa out to plant corn or something else,” Undersander warns, “we have to be very careful about the herbicide that we use so we can plant back in good timing. Roundup is good, which will take out most of the conventional (alfalfa). But if you put 2,4-D in there, then you have a withdrawal period.”
Undersander tells how to determine whether fields are winterkilled or just delayed, as well as provide management tips, in this publication. Legume credits, he adds, can be taken on winterkilled alfalfa. For more on the subject, read Nitrogen Credits Following Winterkilled Alfalfa.