Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Winter kills alfalfa across southern Minnesota

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 05/28/2013 8:05 AM

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The winter wasn't kind to alfalfa.

Bill Hammel, who's been around forages for 35 years, said he's never before seen this much winterkill. He estimates that stands over a year old are 60 percent to 70 percent killed in Wabasha, Olmsted, Winona and Fillmore counties.

"It's the worst I've seen in 40-some years of farming. It's not good," said Roger Henry, who farms six miles north of Dover. Henry has around 200 acres of alfalfa and he figures he'll be able to salvage about 75.

The damage ranges from "not too bad" to "oh my, this is horrible," in the same field. He can see where the water ran and where it froze over, sealing the alfalfa in ice.

Ice sheeting due to snow melt and rainfall in January and February is cited by University of Minnesota Extension as one cause of the severe winter injury and winterkill. Other factors include: A dry fall and early winter that may have prevented alfalfa from accumulating adequate root reserves to survive the unusually long dormant period; periods without snow cover; and long periods of snow cover and low temperatures that prevented spring alfalfa regrowth when reserves were low.

Hammel, dairy specialist with All-American Cooperative, said alfalfa was under a lot of stress last year. Many farmers took four, if not five crops.

It's tough to predict how alfalfa will survive, but the winter seemed to have had a devastating affect, Hammel said.

Alden farmer Dan Erickson said he will be unable to save any of his alfalfa that is two years old and older. From what he understands, the unusual amount of winterkill and winter injury covers a large area from southern Wisconsin across southern Minnesota and northern Iowa into southern South Dakota.

Searching for alternatives

He has already planted a pea and oat mix as an emergency forage and plans to harvest that in 60 days to feed the replacement heifers he raises. He will follow the pea and oat mix with sorghum-Sudan grass.

Likewise, Henry is searching for forage alternatives to feed his dairy herd and heifers. He will plant BMR sorghum-Sudan grass on one field and plant additional barley. He will interseed Italian ryegrass in some alfalfa fields if he's able to secure seed from his supplier. He will also direct seed some new alfalfa. Some of the acres will go to corn.

Mac Ehrhardt, president of Albert Lea Seed House, said the large number of alfalfa fields that are dead or injured comes on top of a situation of limited hay availability. Larger cattle producers are importing hay from Canada or somewhere else and they were counting on the first cutting for relief. Now, that first cutting isn't there.

Each field is different

Each field is different, and every producer will need to look at the field to determine what needs to be done, Ehrhardt said. In some fields, producers may be able to interplant Italian ryegrass to boost the amount of forage. In others, they may want to plant an emergency forage.

One of their specialties is selling forage seed, Ehrhardt said, and they offer a barley-pea mix, an oat-pea mix, sorghum-Sudan grass and Japanese millet. The seed is available, but it's been tough to keep in stock. They got in 12,000 pounds of Italian ryegrass at noon one day and it was out the door by 5 p.m. They took in 12 semi-loads of barley-oat-pea mixtures over a recent 10-day period.

There is seed out there, he said.

The alfalfa seed supply is really tight though, Erickson said. He's trying to be creative and bring in other options to feed his heifers because the cost of dry hay is ridiculous and the supply of hay is already tight.

Randy Kath, an auctioneer and hay and livestock specialist with Steffes Auctioneers, said the winterkill hasn't accelerated the hay prices any higher as they have been at record levels for the past couple months. The weather has affected hay prices on a daily basis more than winterkill.

Buying enough to get by

Farmers have been buying just enough hay to get by, a half load or a load at a time. They're buying because they have to, not because they want to and there's not a lot of hay left. Some farmers who may have sold the hay they have left in the shed are holding on to it because of the uncertainty of what they have in the field, especially if they have their own cattle to feed.

Last year, farmers were able to cut hay the second or third week of May. This year, they're looking at June 1, Kath said.

Long-distance buying has slowed down in the last couple weeks as things have greened up further south. All winter and spring, Steffes Auctioneers were sending hay all over the country. They have a quality tested ramped Internet hay auction every second and fourth Tuesday at their Litchfield office.

Kath predicted hay prices will level off or decline once the new crop is harvested in central Minnesota. But, he says, prices likely won't drop to where they were a year or two ago. Fewer alfalfa acres exist and alfalfa seed is short.

Henry said they are fortunate they haven't had to buy additional forage as they have round bales and haylage and corn silage to tide them over until they are able to harvest additional forage. They will have to change rations, though, to make sure the cows get the best feed.

The Farm Service Agency is gathering information on just how bad the winterkill is, said John McRae, county executive director for the offices in Wabasha and Winona counties. Just like information is gathered after a storm, the FSA is gathering data to determine if a disaster declaration is warranted for alfalfa.

Certifying the losses

There is no pending legislation, nor anything on the books, but if farmers don't certify their loss they won't qualify for any disaster benefit, should one be forthcoming, McRae said. It isn't mandatory that farmers certify their alfalfa loss.

If, however, farmers want to report their alfalfa loss, they must report failed acreage, as it is called, before taking action, McRae said. If farmers have a loss and don't come in, it will be difficult to work backwards and include them in any benefit.

It's hard to find a spot in either Winona or Wabasha counties where one can brag about the condition of the alfalfa, he said. Both counties are in the Top 10 in alfalfa production in Minnesota.

"I have been places where the entire field — big fields — are just dead," McRae said. "Of course, this comes at a very bad time. We've got guys who are almost out of feed."

The FSA is gathering data to find out how widespread the damage is and how many acres are involved. The data will be presented to their governing body once they have the numbers.

Extension educator Dave Nicolai said the winterkill appears widespread throughout the southern third of the state. Up toward Fergus Falls and St. Cloud, the alfalfa looks much better.

Extension educator Doug Holen agreed, saying alfalfa in west central and central Minnesota fared better.

Some alfalfa that greens up may be yield less because it was impacted by winter injury, Nicolai said. People need to scout fields and make decisions on a field-by-field basis.

Producers need to take stem counts and dig up plants and check roots, said Jacob Overgaard, Extension educator in Winona County.

Healthy roots are firm and white. Injured roots are spongy and gray. Over time, injured roots will rot and turn dark brown. A damaged root cannot sustain crown bud growth.