Wild, Wacky Winter Weather

Weather’s effect on alfalfa and forage fields Alfalfa

Author: Mike Rankin, Hay & Forage Grower

The weather geeks at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tell us that 2016 was the second warmest year for the U.S. in the 122 years of record keeping. It was the 24th wettest year, but we also had double the record number of inland flooding events.

What’s done is done, but 2017 is not exactly starting out as anything close to normal in many U.S. regions. The impact on the forage industry, especially alfalfa, looms heavy; it almost always does in matters concerning weather.

Let’s begin in the West where Dan Putnam, extension forage specialist for the University of California-Davis, recently reported that some fields in northern California are flooded from relentless rains. It was needed moisture, for sure, but Putnam points out that there can be consequences to long-term ponding on alfalfa fields.

“The extent of either (plant) death or damage depends upon temperature, drainage, alfalfa growth status, and duration of flooding,” Putnam notes in a recent Alfalfa & Forage News blog.

He explains that dormant alfalfa varieties under cool or cold conditions may tolerate winter flooding more so than the green, actively growing plants in the warmer, desert regions. This is because plant respiration rates are much slower, somewhat buffering the effect of anaerobic (no oxygen) conditions caused by flooded or waterlogged soils.

In addition to the impairment of the plant to “breath,” Putnam notes that flooded alfalfa plants may suffer root damage in the form of fine root hair death, pruning, and weakened nitrogen-fixing nodules. Saturated soils also impair the uptake of micronutrients and predispose plants to disease infections. New seedings planted last fall are especially susceptible to damage.

A warm and wet Midwest

Some early December snow set the stage for a desired winter groundcover in most of the Upper Midwest. It didn’t last long as temperatures warmed with the new year and were accompanied by volumes of liquid precipitation in many areas. Temperatures in the 40s and 50s are not normal for January, but they have been this year, even in the northern states.

Many fields contain standing water with thawed or thawing saturated soils. Given that winter is far from the finish line, the concern now turns to ice formation if the water doesn’t infiltrate the soil before colder temperatures return.

“A solid layer of ice restricts air diffusion and suffocates alfalfa plants,” says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage agronomist. “Solid ice is more devastating than ice that is cracked or where plant stems are sticking above the ice layer,” he adds. As with water, the duration of ice cover plays a large role in determining the potential for damage.

Undersander doesn’t recommend any remedial practices when ice forms over alfalfa fields. Practices such as pulling a disk across the field to break the ice or applying fertilizer to melt the ice are generally of little consequence and often can cause more damage than if fields were left alone.

The waiting game

It’s never easy to predict damage incurred to alfalfa during winter. Be it water or ice, the effects of damage, or lack thereof, are usually not known for weeks and sometimes months into the future.

Past history tells us that the spectrum of potential damage is wide, ranging from total death to slightly weakened plants. In the latter case, both Putnam and Undersander suggest conservative management during the upcoming growing season. Let plants reach 10 percent bloom to build carbohydrate reserves before taking the initial cutting. Also, be vigilant to ensure adequate soil fertility and control pests. Insects often prefer stressed plants. Where possible, also try to control weeds.

Though nothing can be done at this time, it doesn’t hurt to develop a backup plan if the worst-case scenario comes to fruition. Think about alternative crop rotations, possible interseeding strategies for new seedings, annual forages that could fill a short-term feeding need, and when or where new seedings might be established in 2017. Then hope none of those plans will ever be needed.

Full article shared from Hay & Forage Grower website.

Butterflies May Signal Future Alfalfa Problems

Alfalfa caterpillars, the larvae of butterfly eggs, can cause reductions in yield and quality Butterflies-Alfalfa

Author: Mike Rankin, Hay & Forage Grower

Butterflies in alfalfa fields may be free and make for a good photo opportunity, but they also can indicate future alfalfa worm-feeding issues. That’s the warning coming out of Central California where alfalfa fields are awash with yellow and white butterflies this summer.

“Some alfalfa fields appear more yellow and white than green with outbreaks of alfalfa caterpillar butterflies in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys,” notes Rachael Long, an extension farm advisor in the region. “In certain cases, the populations have been massive,” she recently reported in the University of California extension’s Alfalfa & Forage News.

It’s not that the butterflies do any direct damage, but the eggs they lay soon develop into larvae known as alfalfa caterpillars. The yellow butterflies, sometimes referred to as sulfur butterflies, are cyclical, occurring in large numbers every few years. According to Long, contributing to high populations are factors such as slow and uneven alfalfa growth, a lack of predator insects such as the parasitoid wasp, and hot, dry weather.

The alfalfa caterpillar worm is green with a white stripe along each side. “They consume entire leaves and strip a plant, causing significant reductions in yield and quality if numbers are high enough,” Long notes. In severe cases, plants can be completely stripped of the high-value leaves.

Sulfur butterflies and the associated alfalfa caterpillar are not confined to California. The species can be found throughout the United States. According to the “Compendium of Alfalfa Diseases and Pests” (Third Edition), this pest does the most damage in the southwestern U.S., usually on irrigated fields. In southern regions, up to seven generations can occur, whereas in northern locations there may be as few as two.

The economic threshold for controlling alfalfa caterpillars is 10 healthy, nonparisitized caterpillars per sweep of the net. California specialists recommend scouting for the pest in conjunction with armyworms. They have produced a video that helps growers and consultants identify the worms, their natural parasite enemies, and how to differentiate a healthy worm from one that is parasitized.

If treatment thresholds are reached and the field is not close to harvest maturity, there are several chemical control options available for spraying alfalfa. Products containing the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) are also an option. Long reports that a number of fields in Central California have already required chemical applications to control their worm outbreak.

Full article shared from Hay & Forage Grower website.

AFGC Celebrates National Forage Week

Campaign includes social media sharing component using #NationalForageWeek and #ForageFanaticFoto Alfalfa

Author: Progressive Forage Grower

The American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC) is celebrating National Forage Week with the agricultural community June 19-25, 2016.

Slightly less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population lives on a farm, making it more difficult for the general public to relate to farming and the accompanying benefits and challenges.

AFGC strives to bring farming and forages into greater public awareness with National Forage Week.

Chris Agee, AFGC president from Madison, Georgia, says, “National Forage Week was first celebrated last year and was well received by the forage community as one might expect, but more importantly others outside of the forage community were made aware of the importance of forage.

“AFGC’s goal is to increase awareness of forages and we’ve got a long way to go, but as AFGC and its state affiliate councils get the word out at the local level, we’ll make progress.”

The National Forage Week campaign is designed to raise awareness and educate the public about the role of forages in dairy and meat consumption.

Gary Bates, chairman of the AFGC National Forage Week committee, says, “We often take forage crops for granted. Many people do not realize how much forage plants impact their lives. From meat and dairy all the way to ornamental grasses, forages touch most people’s lives in some fashion.”

The National Forage Week promotion includes social media blitzes, photo fliers for local circulation, cameo videos, email blasts and press releases. Any groups or individuals wishing to engage in the promotion are encouraged to email AFGC at info@afgc.org to receive promotional links or materials.

The campaign is expected to grow each year to add additional coverage in farming publications and congressional designation.

AFGC is asking for support at the local level from forage producers across the nation to help get the word out locally and by posting on Facebook, Twitter or other social media posts.

Agee says, “I encourage everyone to share the National Forage Week video that’s online at the AFGC website and share your forage experiences at #NationalForageWeek or share a forage photo at #ForageFanaticFoto because forage isn’t just about food and fiber, but water quality and soil conservation too.”

To learn more about participation in National Forage Week, visit the American Forage & Grassland Council website.

Full article shared from Progressive Forage Grower website.

First Cut: It’s All About the Weather

Exploring the increased impact the environment has on forage quality Hay-Forage-Grower

Author: Mike Rankin, Hay & Forage Grower

Upon reading the title, your thoughts probably first moved to something along the lines of “You’re not kidding; it always rains right about the time I get the chopper (or baler) greased and I have most of my hay down.”

No question, precipitation around harvest time has the potential to make or break a crop, especially if such weather persists for several days or longer. Twenty-five years ago, this would have been my first thought as well, but not anymore.

As the forage enterprise focus has shifted largely from yield to quality, my appreciation for how much weather, or more specifically environment, impacts forage quality has taken quantum leaps. It’s not just about rain showers after the hay is cut or about to be, but also temperature, moisture, and sunlight conditions up to that point. This is why calendar date and even stage of maturity often don’t work well as our harvest time guidance counselors . . . especially for first cutting.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this notion. Many times through the years I have heard farmers say, “Boy, I cut at early-bud stage, but the forage analysis came back looking horrible. The cows just aren’t milking.” Or, the reverse, “I got delayed a week, but the forage test results still came back really good.”

So, what gives?

Here’s what gives — temperature, moisture, sunlight, and the interaction thereof. After taking weekly spring cuttings of alfalfa for forage quality analysis over the course of 25 years, I got to the point where I could just about guess the extent of change just from knowing the weather conditions during the previous week. Since moisture was usually not a limiting factor in the spring, most of the change was driven by temperature and days of sunshine.

In addition to anecdotal examples, there is also plenty of science-based evidence as well. For example, alfalfa research confirms that as temperatures rise, plant maturity accelerates, lignification ramps up, fiber digestibility drops, and leaf to stem ratio declines. In contrast, a moisture deficit condition tends to delay plant maturity (if it occurs early in the growth cycle), reduces plant height, enhances leaf to stem ratio, and lowers plant neutral detergent fiber (NDF). Similar relationships have also been documented for grasses.

Key environmental factors like temperature and soil moisture status cannot be disregarded when trying to explain or predict forage quality characteristics. Making a prediction of forage quality based solely on morphological plant stage or calendar date often is erroneous when confounding environmental conditions exist. These environmental factors are interactive. The positive forage quality impact of dry conditions would be negated by high temperatures during a hot drought when forage quality drops fast and maturity accelerates.

The environmental conditions that exist in spring are unlike that of any other cutting. It can be cold, hot, wet, or dry to every extreme; sometimes it’s all of the above, each having an impact on developing forage quality metrics. For this reason, there are several research-based methods available for taking some of the guesswork out of first-cut forage quality.

Most alfalfa growers are familiar with the widely used Predictive Equations for Alfalfa Quality (PEAQ). Cornell has even developed a system for using PEAQ with alfalfa-grass mixtures. There is also a method of prediction by tracking base 41°F growing degree-days. Some farmers and consultants simply clip samples of alfalfa “on the hoof” and send them into a lab for analysis.

No method is perfect, but here’s a case where doing something is better than nothing. These predictive systems generally eliminate forage quality train wrecks caused by underestimating the impact of temperature, moisture, and sunlight on harvested forage quality.

Because of some unique environmental interactions, first-cut alfalfa or grass has the potential to be the worst or best quality forage that you make all season. Understand these interactions and use the available predictive tools to help ensure it’s the latter.

Full article shared from Hay & Forage Grower website.

For Alfalfa’s Sake – Let It Snow

A good coating of the white stuff now leads to a lush, green crop in the spring.

Author: Hay and Forage Grower RDO-Water-Alfalfa

Though snow is not always a welcome occurrence, for alfalfa growers there is nothing that aids winter survival of the crop better than a good blanket of the white stuff.

“Alfalfa loves snow,” says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska forage agronomist. “As single digit and below zero temperatures arrive, be happy if you received snow recently,” he notes.

In a recent edition of Nebraska’s CropWatch, Anderson explains that last fall’s moderate weather created good conditions for the alfalfa plant to harden for winter. This means there should be a high concentration of nutrients stored in plant roots. “This winterized condition enables alfalfa crowns and roots to withstand temperatures down as low as 5°F above zero,” explains Anderson.

Soil doesn’t get as cold as the air above it, even with no snow cover. For soils to reach 5°F, air temperature needs to be much colder.

“When soil is covered with a blanket of snow, this snow acts like a layer of insulation protecting the ground from bitter cold temperatures,” says Anderson. He continues, “It reduces the rate that soils and alfalfa roots dry out. This is why winters with little snow cover can cause more injury to alfalfa stands, especially if soils are dry.”

From an alfalfa winter survival standpoint, it’s never just one thing. Anderson explains that management practices in the fall influence the effect of snow on your alfalfa. Factors such as leaving tall stubble provides some insulation value itself and will often aid in catching and maintaining snow cover. Harvest management also comes into play. Explains Anderson, “Avoiding alfalfa harvest during the so-called risk period from mid-September through mid-October helps alfalfa roots winterize well by building up nutrients and reducing water content.” Good soil fertility, especially potassium, also enhances winter survival.

While snow may not always be welcome, and it can make farm chores miserable, be assured that today’s (or tomorrow’s) snow is great insurance for a lush, green alfalfa crop this coming spring.

Article shared from Hay and Forage Grower website.