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Sorting through dairy cropping strategies

Nov. 15, 2012 | 0 comments


A large number of dairy farmers across the U.S. and Canada face challenges because of the past cropping year.

"Clearly, an awful lot of the dairy region is going to be short on forages as we approach first cutting next spring and we will have to manage very carefully," says Dr. Dan Undersander.

The internationally-known agronomist from University of Wisconsin-Madison spoke to an audience on Nov. 12 during "Sorting Through Our Cropping Strategies," a Hoard’s Dairyman webinar hosted by Merial’s Best In Class Dairies program.

Undersander explained that alfalfa roots die back when the plant enters winter and after cutting. The roots need moisture to regrow, both in spring and after cutting, preferably within the first two weeks after harvest. If not, yields will be reduced.

Water stress occurs when soil moisture levels get down to about 50 percent of soil capacity, Undersander said, since the plants can’t take all the water out.

Yields lost to water stress can never be made up by irrigating more or more rain than necessary following stress, he underlined. It’s one of the reason why a lot of farmers who take first cutting early get a pretty good second cutting, he noted; Wisconsin is often wet through the end of May.

In 2012, March was dry and, as Undersander anticipated, first cutting came in below average for many dairymen. A poll showed 41 percent of webinar participants had reductions in first cutting yields up to 25 percent, 24 percent had reductions greater than 25 percent, 34 percent had typical yields and no one reported better than average yields.

"This hurt us," Undersander said, since first cutting provides about 40 percent of annual alfalfa yield. "We were starting the year off at average or below."

Fall growth was also reduced because of the dry season. The same thing happened with grasses, which do not have the drought tolerance of alfalfa, Undersander noted, and pastures suffered larger reductions in yield and, likely, winterkill.

Interestingly, droughty years in the past have often resulted in increased milk production. That’s because drought stress decreases alfalfa plant height and increases the leaf to stem ratio for a better quality forage, Understander noted.

Since higher temperatures reduce fiber digestibility, first cutting hay or grass typically has more digestible fiber than later cuttings, Undersander said. Plants also mature faster and come into flower sooner with higher temperatures, and stem diameter is decreased.

"A fine stem is not necessarily an indication of higher quality, as some people suggest," he pointed out.

The 2012 drought also caused stress and problems in younger stands of alfalfa, which have less developed crown and root structures, and diseased stands. In particular, aphanomyces reduces root growth and a plant’s potential to take up water.

Therefore, Undersander suggests planting alfalfa with resistance to the aphanomyces disease.

"You’ll get not only better yields, but better ability to withstand drought. Everybody needs that," he said. "A young alfalfa plant is like a calf. If it gets disease early, it becomes a runt and never grows well again."

Research shows plants grown on dry land plants have stunted root systems and don’t grow as well the following year as plants grown on irrigated ground.

"Last year, we probably should have taken a first cutting and then left the new seedings alone for the rest of the year because of the drought we were having, to try to minimize the impact on the root systems so we could get good yields next year," he noted.

Drought also has an effect on winter survival, since plants that are more stressed in the fall will be more vulnerable to extremes in the environment. On the other hand, dry soils enhance winter survival, compared to wet, disease-prone soils.

Overall, plants are a bit weaker than he’d like to see, Undersander said, so if there is an open winter, they may have difficulty surviving.

"It could go either way. It depends on the snow cover," he added.

Alfalfa management

Fall management is critical for winter survival and initial spring growth. Potassium, in particular, is absolutely necessary for winter survival.

"Do it right now if you haven’t already," Undersander urged dairy producers.

Another important facet of managing alfalfa is letting at least one and, if cutting four times, two of the cuttings mature to 10 percent bloom.

If every cutting of alfalfa is taken in bud stage, the stand endures tremendous stress and will always suffer significant thinning and enhanced winter kill, Undersander said. Each successive cutting at bud stage results in increased detrimental effects.

"To rebuild that stand condition, take the first cutting for dairy quality and let every other cutting go to 10 percent bloom," he suggested, noting the blooming hay can be used for heifer feed.

When alfalfa is drought-stressed, it should be harvested only when it is economical. Harvesting a short stand just because it is flowering does not make it regrow.

"I saw a awful lot of ‘therapeutic’ mowing this last summer, where people felt like they needed to be out doing something and were hauling alfalfa that was too little to harvest," Undersander remarked.

He recommends harvesting if the stand is over 10 inches tall, flowering and it is economical. Let the plants approach 100 percent bloom and then mow at the normal height.

However, if the stressed alfalfa plants are 10 inches tall or less, don’t cut. It is better to let the regrowth come up through the existing growth. Mowing will not increase the regrowth, he noted; it will add labor, fuel costs and increase wheel traffic damage.

Even if fields are not growing, continue to scout and control potato leaf hopper, army worm and other insects, because they will slow or halt the regrowth. Because of the past warm year, insects were worse and there were more varieties, he noted.

Drought-stressed new seedings should not be harvested during the season, although a late fall cutting may be taken after the plants won’t regrow. That means even now, Undersander noted, although it would be difficult to get dry.

Late season forages

Turning to late season forages, a poll of listeners revealed 22 percent planted sorghum sudangrass, 31 percent planted oats, 16 percent planted oats with peas, 31 percent planted other small grains and no one planted corn.

"That means a lot of people didn’t make the best choice," Undersander observed.

He views sorghum sudangrass as a bad late season choice. If it is planted in June, a farmer can get tonnage, particularly if he lives in the south, Undersander explained, but the plants require 80 degree or hotter weather for good growth.

The other options can work.

Oats can be planted Sept. 1 or later and, while adding peas can improve the palatability for dairy cows, it increases the cost of the seed. However, oat seed availability became an issue in 2012, and farmers looked to other small grains.

Some varieties of triticale will yield well in the fall, Undersander continued; barley will yield less, and if a farmer can’t find winter rye, winter triticale and winter wheat are options.

He noted that ryegrass has less fall yield than oats, is not drought tolerant and usually doesn’t survive the winter.

Remember, Undersander said, that the herbicide put on corn can limit what is planted next.

One option most dairy farmers don’t think about is coming back after corn silage with corn.

"Our data suggests that the highest tonnage crop, up until Aug. 1, is corn. It is a choice we should consider," he said. "Clearly, corn is our highest yielding crop, but it’s one we don’t think about for a late summer planting."

Since the corn will be used as forage, there is no reason for a high quality variety. Plant the cheapest seed at normal planting rates, let it grow until a killing frost, mow it and run it through a conditioner. It can be made into silage or baled if the stems are small enough.

stretching Forage supplies

A poll of where farmers stand on forage supply showed 33 percent of the program participants will need to buy more forage or reduce their animal numbers, while 25 percent had adequate supplies with supplemental forages grown. Twenty percent had adequate supplies with corn silage and alfalfa they’d grown, while 23 percent had adequate supplies with some extra.

When buying hay, Undersander pointed to the range of prices as reported in the weekly Extension hay market price list. Pay attention to the baled form, since it makes a difference in the price, he advised. For example, using big round bales instead of big square bales can mean a savings of $30-50 a ton.

At this point, farmers should inventory their feed stuffs and know where they are.

"I can’t stress this enough: inventory and make a plan right now," Undersander urged. "You may need to reduce your herd size, so make your cull decisions early."

Stretch feed by feeding efficiently. When a round bale is set on the ground, 40 percent of the hay will be wasted. Bale feeders can reduce the waste to 15 percent, and cradle feeders can reduce losses to 5-10 percent.

It doesn’t take long to recoup the cost of a feeder. For hay at $200 a ton, Undersander said it would take 20 animals consuming 20 pounds a day about 14 days to recover the cost of a bale feeder, while a cradle feeder would pay for itself in a month.

"A quality feeder will save you money, but more importantly, it will stretch your hay supply and help your inventory carry through into the spring," he added.

He also suggested grazing corn stalks, as some farmers routinely do, and any stockpiled forage, including turning heifers and dry cows out onto grassed waterways where possible.

"Late in the season like this, the quality can still be fairly high, maybe 15-20 percent protein," he noted.

It’s also important to look forward to next year’s growing season. Fertilize alfalfa with potassium to improve first cut tonnage and winter survival, and add 15-25 pounds of sulfur if fertilizing this fall to enhance spring growth.

Come spring, Undersander advises farmers to evaluate their alfalfa stands. If there is less than 15-20 plants per square foot, disk and reseed immediately.

"The sooner you make that decision, the better", he pointed out.

Seed two pounds of Italian rye grass with the alfalfa for early forage, or plant alfalfa with oats or a ryegrass cover crop to increase early season yields.

"A lot of us are going to need forage and it’s not a question of total tonnage for the year," Undersander said. "It’s a question of needing forage at the time that first cutting is due, which is what the oats or ryegrass will do."

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