Hay fields that haven’t yet frozen can still be soil tested, advises Jerry Lindquist, Michigan State University (MSU) Extension forage educator.

Experts usually advise growers to soil test about the same season each year to have more applicable data when comparing fertility levels over long periods of time. But taking a soil test no matter the time of year is better than not taking one at all, he says.

When fertilizer prices were high and the price of forage was low, many farmers cut back on fertilizing hay and pasture fields. “In many instances, baling hay was not profitable, especially if you were trying to sell it. So many farms quit fertilizing and soil testing hay fields all together,” Lindquist says.

Hay prices for the coming winter season, however, are $115-240/ton; most dairy-quality alfalfa hay is at more than $180/ton. Fertilizer prices have also fallen in the last quarter of 2013. Potash, one of alfalfa hay’s key nutrients, has dropped 18% in price from what it was in 2012, to a $450/ton range across Michigan retail markets. “International markets for potash are showing weakness and many feel these markets will stay low for the spring and may even move lower,” he adds.

The impact of these two price swings makes alfalfa hay one of the more promising crops for 2014 from a profitability standpoint. But to optimize yield, fertility levels must be robust. “We have too many alfalfa hay fields across Michigan that are low in potassium,” warns Kim Cassida, MSU forage specialist. “When potash was high-priced, farms backed off on their annual topdress rates and their alfalfa stands are showing it.” Alfalfa is less drought-tolerant and less winterhardy when low in potassium, she says.

For more information contact Lindquist at lindquis@anr.msu.edu or 231-832-6139 or Cassida at cassida@msu.edu.

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