By Cheryl Anderson
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- All signs are pointing to a bountiful and likely high-quality first cutting of alfalfa, according to experts. That is, if the rains slow down and some warm, sunny weather ensues.
Many alfalfa-growing regions have received ample rains -- too much in some areas. While some growers may have to wait on first cutting due to wet conditions, this year's first cuttings are expected to be good in both quality and yield. Hay in both the Nebraska and Wisconsin regions came through winter in good shape and is growing well.
Bruce Anderson, professor of agronomy and Extension forage specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was optimistic for this year's crop. He said most fields in Nebraska have had more-than-adequate rain in recent weeks to get alfalfa off to a good start.
Thanks to a mild winter and despite a lack of snow cover, there seems to have been few problems with winterkill or injury to alfalfa this spring, according to Dan Undersander, research and Extension forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. However, several small areas in northeastern Wisconsin have some bit of heaving, where the lack of snow caused a freeze, then a thaw caused the tap roots to push the alfalfa plants right out of the ground.
If growers find their alfalfa heaved less than 1 inch, it should be OK, but will likely have a short stand life. However, if plants heaved more than 1 1/2 inches, the tap root is probably broken. Growers may be able to take a first cutting, but should consider plowing the field after first cutting, since the stand won't do well if conditions turn a little drier.
Alfalfa growth in Nebraska had been a little ahead, but recent cool and cloudy weather set growth back to near-normal, UNL's Anderson said. Although some Nebraska growers raising dairy-quality alfalfa will start cutting around the second week of May, the vast majority will begin around the last week of May or the first week of June.
Assuming the current weather pattern continues, Undersander said he expects first alfalfa cuttings to be a bit early this year in southern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa. The normal first cutting would be around May 20, but could be a few days ahead of schedule. Northern Wisconsin and states like Minnesota and Michigan normally harvest first cuttings around June 1, but may be a few days ahead as well.
STRATEGIES AND CHALLENGES
Anderson said he hasn't seen any unique challenges developing for Nebraska alfalfa growers. While there seem to be good opportunities this year for high-quality hay that will bring a premium price, acquiring the hay and marketing it effectively could be challenging, he said.
Anderson does not foresee any significant pest problems this year. But with recent rains, he said he would not be surprised to see more leaf diseases develop and advised growers to be watching fields.
Undersander encouraged growers who are seeding to fertilize the crop so it will come up rapidly and establish well. In addition, he recommends growers put down 25 pounds of sulfur and a couple pounds of boron. Growers should also be sure to control weeds during the first 60 days after seeding so weeds don't crowd out the alfalfa and cause thin spots in the stand.
In some Southern states, the relatively warm winter caused concern over inadequate length of dormancy, according to Calvin Trostle, associate professor and Extension agronomist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Lubbock, Texas. This is especially problematic if a hard freeze ensues that could singe off growth.
"That wastes some of the stored carbohydrates and energy that are stored up over winter during dormancy," he said.
Still, alfalfa conditions in Texas are looking good and some growers in the Trans-Pecos region have already taken their first cutting. Growers in the Lubbock area should begin next week, he said.
Deep soil moisture in west Texas and the Texas High Plains is in fairly good condition currently and seems to be running deeper than usual, he said.
"I've heard from people who backhoed a trench or were digging post holes who said the soil was as wet as deep as they dug into the ground," Trostle said.
Trostle said even though all alfalfa acres in west Texas are irrigated, there's always worry about there being enough water to accomplish a good alfalfa crop.
TOTAL ALFALFA ACRES
Trostle said he does not believe there has been much of a change in total alfalfa acres, although irrigation pumping limits may continue to restrict the size of fields, especially for growers in Lubbock and west Texas who rely on irrigation. Water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer continue to decline and are even more pronounced in the Texas High Plains.
"We may have as many fields 10 years from now as we have today, but I would bet they're going to be smaller," he said.
Anderson said he believes there might be a slight increase in the total number of alfalfa acres in Nebraska, but no rapid changes.
Undersander said there will likely be alfalfa acreage at least equal to last year in Wisconsin.
"The price of corn being down does causes some growers to shift to other crops. So there will be less interest in corn grain," he said. "But there's a lot of corn grown for silage, so the trade-off is really the alfalfa versus the corn silage acreage."
Undersander said the new reduced-lignin varieties may serve to increase alfalfa acres slightly.
DTN contacted several alfalfa growers from around the country to find out how their crops are doing so far this spring. Here's what they had to say.
Kevin Adamson (west-central Nebraska): "We started off warm and dry and got a good jump on growth; however, we have received 7 1/2 inches of rain in the last 10 days. We are hoping fields will dry out in time for first cutting, which will probably be around the 15th of May. We have no pressure right now from insects except for an early hatch on weevils. Our biggest challenge is that commodity prices and alfalfa prices are lower, so marketing will be a little more challenging this year."
Doug Zillinger (north-central Kansas): "Our alfalfa looks excellent. We've had 9 inches of rain that took us to a full profile of moisture, and temperatures are coming up, so it can really pop. Our first cutting will be sometime in the next three weeks when the chemical date comes free. The only problems we are having are those pesky weevils and aphids. We are looking forward to good cuttings all year long and for good weather all the way."
Crawford McFetridge (Finger Lakes area of New York State): "We have had some good rains, but right now it is too wet to do fieldwork. The alfalfa is growing, but is a little behind. We need some sunny days, night temperatures to stay above freezing and some 70-degree days. We usually begin our first cutting around the last week of May, but if the weather continues to stay cold with no sun, our first cutting will be a week or two behind. We are just waiting to go to the field. Everything is mud and there's more rain coming."
Jeff Littrell (eastern Minnesota): "We lost all our hay ground and just seeded in organic oats and alfalfa two weeks ago. The oats are up 4 inches, and the alfalfa is just starting to come through. Our first cutting will be in late June or mid-July. The last time we seeded this heavy (25 pounds per acre with 10 pounds per acre grass), we had three years of the best yields I've ever seen."
Clayton Kline (northern Missouri): "In spite of a late freeze, the overall condition of alfalfa in this area seems to be good. Soil moisture seems to be adequate. First cutting should be mid-May to June first, depending on weather and whether or not the crop is being chopped or cut for hay. Since it has been so cool here this spring, I haven't heard any reports of alfalfa weevil being a problem yet."
Keith Landis (northern Illinois): "Our first-cutting alfalfa is looking pretty good at this point, but we could use some more heat. Moisture is adequate since just getting 2 inches of rain. We are anticipating our first cut at the end of next week or into the following week. We will be chopping first cut for dairy-quality hay. New seeding will be a while unless we get some warmer days."
Cheryl Anderson can be reached at Cheryl.firstname.lastname@example.org
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