Hay Prices Are Going Through the Roof

Significant winterkill of alfalfa is being reported in northeast Iowa, southwest Wisconsin.

Last Wednesday, hay sold for $20 to $50 a ton higher than it did the previous week at the auction at Dyersville in northeast Iowa. That weekly auction is one of the largest hay markets in the state. And the best alfalfa sold for even higher prices. Dale Leslein, auction manager, says anything a dairy animal might eat was $50 to $70 a ton higher than the previous week. Top price last week was brought by a load of fourth-crop, big square bales of alfalfa, not tested for nutrient content. It sold for an all-time high of $245 per ton.

Hay prices were also steep last week at the Ft. Atkinson Hay Auction in northeast Iowa. Prices ranged from $110 to $145 on second-crop square bales, $155 on third-crop squares and $185 on third-crop big square bales at that market.

Prices for all kinds of hay are extremely high this spring, notes Leslein, and part of the reason is there is serious concern about how hay stands have survived this past winter. Alfalfa is suffering winterkill in more fields than many people realize this spring. He says if you cut into the root on the alfalfa plants in a number of fields this spring, you'll find a yellowing inside with dead cells and that means the alfalfa plant is on its last leg.

Winterkill of alfalfa is greater than expected

Leslein reports a number of hay growers have lost their stands. From talking to them, he believes they are going to replace about a third of their hay acreage by establishing hay again, and on the other two-thirds of their hay acreage they are going to plant corn. Corn is at record high prices this spring, which is competing with alfalfa for acreage, he notes.

The best time to evaluate alfalfa stands is once the plants develop at least 6 inches of growth in the spring, says Brian Lang, Iowa State University Extension field agronomist at Decorah. At that time you can use the stem count method to evaluate plants.

"However, if you want to evaluate stands now, during the last week of April, alfalfa should show initial green up by now with some fields looking better than others," says Lang. "But it is obvious that some fields - and specifically some areas within some fields - are not showing this initial green-up here in late April and likely they have suffered winterkill."

Check the roots of alfalfa plants. You do that by splitting them open and taking a look. "If the roots still look good inside - that is, if they have a firm taproot with creamy white color - and the crown buds are present on the alfalfa plants below the soil line, then you may just want to wait one more week for visual signs of plant recovery - or green-up," he says. "That would give you a better idea of the health of the stand and what you should do with it."

How to evaluate alfalfa stands

Lang says older stands are more adversely affected than younger stands hit by winterkill. And fields with good fall growth or high fall stubble that was left on the final cutting are in better shape this spring than fields that were harvested in late fall and the alfalfa stubble was left very short over the winter.

Based on his observations of fields and a number of phone calls he has received, Lang says many of the alfalfa fields that were left without stubble or regrowth last fall are now suffering from significant winterkill. On many hilly fields, the greater injury is on ridge tops, while sideslopes look better but still have spotty problem areas. In some of the same fields with alfalfa injury, there are areas sheltered by trees that are looking better. On flat fields, the greater amount of winterkill appears to be in the depression areas of the fields.

Some parts of northeast Iowa had more widespread winterkill problems, even on younger stands and stands that had good fall growth. So what happened in these cases to cause this?

Heavy rains in the fall in these areas saturated the soil going into winter, he explains. Alfalfa in saturated soil going into winter will not harden to the same degree as alfalfa growing in normal soil moisture conditions. "Alfalfa in dry soil conditions in the fall actually hardens for the winter the best," says Lang. "So, with the saturated soils we had going into winter, the winter didn't have to get as cold as it does in some years to injure alfalfa. Of course, this past winter did get cold enough to hurt the stands in many fields."

What to do with patchy winter-killed fields

When checking alfalfa fields in early spring for signs of winterkill, you can't necessarily see green growth from the roadside. It's best to walk into the fields, says Lang. If there is no green growth by April 20 or so, those plants will not likely recover. But, if the roots still look good inside when you split them open and take a look, then you may want to wait one more week for signs that the plant is greening up.

If the winterkill of the alfalfa stand is patchy and the majority of the field is worth keeping, Lang suggests drilling some forage into the barren areas of the field. He recommends:

* If the field is only to be kept for 2008, he suggests using an annual forage such as oats planted in mid- to late April or early May, or foxtail millet planted in late May or early June. Foxtail millet is a warm-season grass that needs warmer soil temperatures. These forage options can be harvested as hay. While they do not provide season-long forage, they probably give the best economic return for the dollar spent under the circumstances.

* If the field is to be kept for more than one year, then Lang suggests using a perennial forage such as red clover and/or orchardgrass planted in mid- to late April or early May. Certain other perennial forages could also be used, but not alfalfa. Don't try to seed alfalfa again right away in that field because of the presence of autotoxic compounds from the previous alfalfa stand.

* If the winterkill is too excessive, then plan to rotate the field. You can plant corn in the winterkilled alfalfa field this spring and seed a new alfalfa stand in another field this coming August. "Even though the alfalfa was killed over the winter, there is still a full nitrogen credit for the following corn crop you plant there," says Lang.

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