Winter weather damages alfalfa crop, farmers consider options for increasing summer yield

Some farmers in Mecosta County are considering postponing their first hay and alfalfa cutting or rotating their fields to a different crop entirely after weather conditions damaged crops this winter. (Pioneer file photo)

MECOSTA COUNTY — Farmers in Mecosta County may be facing a low hay and alfalfa yield for the season following cold, ice storms and wet conditions this winter.

Although hay producers throughout Michigan would normally be in the beginning stages of the first hay cutting for the 2019 harvesting season, many farmers are being forced to wait for more crop growth, or consider the possibility of planting a different crop entirely.

Paul Gross, field crop educator with Michigan State University Extension, said many alfalfa growers have reported between 40 and 60 percent loss due to winterkill this spring.

“We have had a lot of ice sheeting and heating and thawing, and a lot of these areas did not survive the winter,” Gross said.

During a virtual conference for MSU Extension on May 16, Kim Cassida, forages and grazing educator, explained some of the contributing factors to the loss of crops was the extreme cold temperatures coupled with a lack of snow cover in many areas, which can act as insulation for the hay crops, several ice storms and wet conditions.

She said factors farmers can look for in their fields to determine whether their crops will be viable include large dead patches, uneven growth of the plants and frost heaving, or an upwards swelling of soil during freezing conditions.

For hay producers who determine their crop is still healthy and will produce an adequate yield for the year, Gross said they may still need to postpone their cutting schedule for a little more than a week.

He explained while the first cut would normally be taking place already, or very soon, the cooler temperatures this year have resulted in less growth, so people will need to wait for the crop to grow before starting to cut.

“We’re just going to have to wait for warmer weather to get some more growth,” Gross said.

He noted, however, that the amount of rain Mecosta County has been receiving lately could help produce a good hay supply for the fields that still have a healthy crop.

While some farmers will be able to start their first alfalfa cutting soon, those with damaged fields will have to look at other options.

Cassida explained there are two options for farmers whose crop was damaged by the winter conditions.

Farmers could choose to overseed, or plant a different type of seed over the field without tearing up the existing soil to fill in where the alfalfa has died, she said.

She noted new alfalfa can’t be planted over the existing crop — as the plant is toxic to itself — and choosing a crop such as ryegrass or small grains such as oats is better.

Another option for farmers, Cassida said, would be to rotate to an entirely different crop.

For farmers who need to feed livestock such as dairy cows, a good source of protein other than alfalfa would be red clover or crimson clover, she said.

“None of these are going to give you as good a yield as alfalfa. A pure stand of red clover, best case scenario, might give you a couple of cuttings and two- to three-tons of dry matter, but it will take up the space for that year while you’re waiting for the alfalfa toxicity to dissipate and it will give you a high protein forage,” she said.

Gross said although there are some options for hay producers, it could be a difficult season.

“Overall, the hay supply in Michigan is going to be tight,” he said.

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Posted by Taylor Fussman

Taylor is the city/county reporter for the Pioneer and Herald Review newspapers. She can be reached at (231) 592-8362 or by email at tfussman@pioneergroup.com.

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