Weird spring brings trouble for alfalfa farmersA normal spring for farmers means cutting alfalfa for the first time sometime in late May. In this anything-but-normal spring, they are going to cut it at least a month early.
By: By Rob Schultz, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
A normal spring for farmers means cutting alfalfa for the first time sometime in late May. In this anything-but-normal spring, they are going to cut it at least a month early.
It's one more reason why farmers are so anxious these days. They worked through the warmest March on record when alfalfa grew fast. They worried through the last week, when early-morning frost stopped the growing process and damaged the edges of the alfalfa leaves.
"Every time we get down to 28 degrees, the alfalfa itself gets burned a little bit. And we've had quite a few 28-degree nights," said Landmark Co-op agronomist Joe Speich.
So just like that, the main food source for cows and other animals went from looking rich and healthy to a little funky.
"It's a very hot topic right now," said Brian Reilly, who talks every day with farmers in his role as a dairy production consultant with Premier Co-op's Mineral Point office. "We talk about (the alfalfa) every day as far as what to do."
Reilly said a cow's milk production can be determined by the quality of alfalfa it eats every day.
"When cows are fed quality alfalfa, they milk better, their production is higher. If they eat stuff that is more mature, less desirable, cows don't perform as well. They won't milk as well," he said. "So ultimately it affects profitability."
Reilly said he's telling the farmers that the alfalfa is still in good shape and will return to form, especially if it warms up and the area gets the rain predicted for this weekend.
"If they cut it at the right time, they'll get good quality," added Reilly, who believes the right time for the first harvest may be around a week from now. That would be an unofficial record for the earliest cut.
"But if they wait two weeks longer than they should, it's going to be pretty poor-quality stuff," he warned.
The optimum time for the first cut is when the alfalfa is 24 inches tall and at bud stage, Reilly said. What has confounded farmers is that the frost delayed the emergence of that bud. The quality of the plant could be reduced if it grows beyond 24 inches tall before the bud emerges.
"We need to watch that height," Reilly said. "The big mistake that can be made is to wait too long to cut because they don't see that bud stage. Then it gets 30 inches tall and the quality is passed aside."
Adding to farmers' confusion is that many have started planting corn and soybeans. That has created a logjam for farmers who hire other farmers to cut their alfalfa and plant their crops. Not all farmers have the big, expensive machinery that can perform those jobs quickly.
"It's all coming at once, and there's only so much equipment to go around," Reilly said. "I work with several people who have it custom-done, and they are in a real pickle. The custom guys ... are going to get real strung out pretty thin here this spring."
Larson Acres' Jamie Larson said the 1,800 acres of alfalfa that he needs to feed 2,400 dairy cows looks pretty good on his farm along the border of Rock and Green counties. "It will probably be a lighter first crop, but hopefully we'll get an extra crop this year to make up the difference," he said.
Ag experts are predicting that some farmers will get a record six cuts of alfalfa this year. The average is four cuts a year, Reilly said.
"People who are really aggressive could easily get six cuts. But a lot plays into that," Reilly said. "We have to have rainfall and the fertility has to be good."
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