09 May Hay Is In Short Supply
Hay Is In Short Supply
The Northeast is not immune to short hay supplies. Western areas of the country hit by drought in 2021 are experiencing the same environmental growing conditions in 2022, short on moisture going into the planting and growing season. Hay stocks have tightened to the point where most geographies in the US are experiencing some level of increased hay and forage prices, often with longer hauls when purchasing hay. Hay has traditionally moved from the Western to Eastern states.
However, lower hay inventories have flipped distribution from East to West as growers experiencing extreme drought conditions purchase hay from the Midwest as far East as Kentucky and Ohio. Hay acres will continue to increase in value due to lower supply and higher demand. Eastern forage growers should manage existing and new seeding hay fields according to capture higher prices for the foreseeable future.
Spring planting delays in the northeast have farmers scratching their heads about which crop to plant first. There’s not much benefit to planting any crop in soil conditions that are too wet. Planting in wet conditions leaves soils compacted, can leave ruts in wet areas of fields, and often results in spotty stand establishment that soon leads to competition from weeds. Wait to perform tillage for seedbed preparation until after soils have had sufficient drainage and evaporative loss to be below field capacity at a good depth.
Tillage preparation and planting alfalfa in wet conditions that cause soil compaction will likely reduce seedling establishment. Compaction leading to waterlogging can cause seedling loss due to root rot pathogens. These effects are detrimental to soil ecology and root health; even mild compaction can affect soil nutrient uptake and plant health. All these factors should be strong deterrents against premature soil preparation and planting of alfalfa in wet soils. In alfalfa, compacted soils can lead to Phytophthora and Aphanomyces root rots when subsequent rains create waterlogged conditions even for short periods of time. Seedling plants grown from seed treated with fungicides can get some early protection from these diseases, but longer-term stand health will be compromised by these pathogens in soils that undergo periods of waterlogging. Select an alfalfa variety with high resistance ratings for these disease organisms if you anticipate any periods of waterlogging over the expected stand life.
Evaluate existing stands of alfalfa for productivity potential. Older stands should still have at least 4-5 plants per square foot, but the best stand evaluation technique is to count stems per square foot, since each alfalfa plant can send up several shoots from the crown area following winter dormancy and after each cutting. Fifty-five stems per square foot has been shown to be adequate for high yields.
Even though fertilizer prices have risen, so have hay prices. Older stands of alfalfa that are still productive may have pulled down your soil fertility levels if your fertilizer applications haven’t kept up with crop nutrient removal for the past few years. Given current hay prices, now is a good time to soil test and make sure your soil fertility levels are adequate for productive alfalfa growth and yields, especially in older stands that are still thick enough to provide a good yield response if fertilizer is applied.
Consider top-dressing alfalfa after first cutting to maintain yield levels, especially with potassium if soil test potassium is low. Sulfate forms of sulfur can be fairly rapidly available too if needed. Alfalfa requires about 6 pounds of sulfur per ton of dry hay production, and high yielding fields will likely need some supplemental sulfur. Top-dressing phosphorus can boost yields as well when soil levels are low, but tend towards slower uptake and utilization.
Here are a few useful references:
Increase alfalfa hay yields by addressing sulfur deficiency – MSU Extension
Alfalfa Stand Assessment (psu.edu)
Harvesting drought-stressed small grains as forage (umn.edu)
Plant forage stands as soon as feasible – Ohio Ag Net | Ohio’s Country Journal (ocj.com)