BURLINGTON, Ill. — A tough winter for alfalfa and the wild, wet spring weather are making hay quality and accessibility poor this year.
Tim Van Acker, who depends on hay as part of the feed for his dairy cows in northern Illinois, is among those feeling the pinch.
“The prices are high for the livestock guy,” he said. In his area of Kane County there is also competition with horse owners for good hay.
The large amount of alfalfa killed over the winter has added to the shortage and high prices, he said.
And the problem with winterkill is not limited to northern Illinois. Farmers in central Illinois had the same challenge this year, said Travis Meteer, a University of Illinois Extension educator specializing in beef.
“The (alfalfa) stands that were mowed a little later last year were more vulnerable,” said Meteer, with the Orr Research Center in Pike County.
Fixing the problem is not as easy as replanting alfalfa in the thin spots because the established plant releases a secretion that inhibits new alfalfa plant growth, Meteer said. Instead, farmers will likely interseed summer annuals for a mixed stand.
With all the prevent plant acres in the mix this year, it may be difficult for farmers to get the seed they want for cover crops or forage. There is no way small seed providers could keep up with the emergency demand this year, Meteer said.
When they do find seed, Meteer encourages farmers to carefully read packaging. When buying cereal rye, oats, barley or triticale, it is important to make sure there is a high percentage of pure live seed and to check the germination rate.
While there is a tendency to not want to spend a lot on cover crop seed, it is important to make sure the quality is good, he said, especially when it will be part of livestock rations. The crop should be analyzed by a nutritionist, he said.
Meteer also offered several cautions when growing corn for silage, especially if it is planted late. The higher population corn to be chopped as corn silage is allowed as a prevent plant crop by the
USDA, but growers also need to clear it with their crop insurance, he said. They also need to check its quality.
“Silage will be different this year than in other years,” he said.
Corn is not likely to develop ears in a short season. Usually, silage is half grain and half plant material. With less grain, the silage won’t provide its usual nutrients, Meteer said.
Some farmers are growing summer annuals, including millet or sorghum sudangrass, this year. For the best quality, harvest should be done at the flag leaf stage or early boot stage, Meteer said. Although that is normally about 60 days, it can vary with temperature and humidity. He recommended based on plant stage rather than a strict timeline because the dry hay’s quality will decline when it sets seed.
Hay is also often of lower quality in flooded areas where it may have a higher content of dirt and ash and sometimes mold. This creates issues with quality and palatability for the livestock. There will likely be more waste if the crop is dirty. Again, nutrient analysis is key.
The wet weather also means many growers are a cut behind for alfalfa. As farmers couldn’t get into the field in a timely matter, the grasses will have poorer nutrient value.
“The take-home this year is that hay and feed will be vastly different this year than most years,” Meteer said.
There will be larger than usual differences in quality.
“(Livestock) producers will have a great return on investment if they get a nutrient analysis. They need to know the nutrient value of the field and what supplements to add to get peak performance,” he said.