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May 17, 2002

Forage expert: Crop planting, hay harvest on a collision course

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Poor spring weather could throw another curve at farmers already behind in the count on crop planting. Alongside the fields ready for corn and soybean seed could be hay crops ready for cutting.

Farmers might look for capable help to pinch hit on those forage acres that otherwise would be left for later, after the crop passes its peak quality, said Keith Johnson, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service forage specialist.

"When things do dry out to allow farmers back in the field, they're going to be wanting to plant their corn, followed by their soybeans," Johnson said. "At that time they ought to be harvesting the first crop of hay. Lots of things ought to happen in the days that are available, and there's just not going to be enough hours in the day to do too many tasks."

Forage harvests begin about mid-May in southern Indiana and late May in counties farther north. Usually by that time farmers have finished planting, or are nearly done.

Not this year. Excessive May rain has turned planting schedules upside down.

As farmers wait for the clouds to part and soils to dry, they should make arrangements to avoid potential labor shortages brought on by converging planting and hay harvesting dates, Johnson said.

"While conditions are wet they need to be going through their minds who lives in the area that has knowledge of equipment, so that when the good weather comes they can be doing two or three operations at one time," he said.

Producers may know a retired farmer who'd be happy to climb back on a tractor, or they may hire some temporary help. Farm labor usually can be had for $10 per hour or less – a small price to pay compared to the profits that could be lost if hay sits in a field too long, Johnson said.

"I'm not sure that many producers even realize that with the course of time they're losing value in a forage crop," he said. "That's not necessarily because yields might decline as it gets older – actually, yield will increase up to a point as it gets older – but they'll lose the quality. An alfalfa crop that on May 15 might be worth $100 a ton, two weeks later may be worth $60 a ton. It's a matter of quality reduction occurring as that crop matures."

Late-harvested hay loses value because the crop adds cell wall content – fiber – and is more difficult for livestock to digest. Each day alfalfa is harvested beyond its prime, digestibility is reduced by around a half percentage unit, Johnson said.

Forages also lose crude protein as the crop ages.

"It's critical that we harvest at the proper time," Johnson said. "For an alfalfa crop, for good quality followed with good vigor and persistence of stand, we should be harvesting at the late bud to very early flower stage. A grass crop ought to be harvested before we start seeing any pollen shed."

Timely hay harvest also increases total production, Johnson said.

"In the state of Indiana, farmers who raise alfalfa ought to target four cuttings," he said. "If you're delayed in getting the first crop off – even by 10 days – it can push you into a three-harvest scenario. Typically with alfalfa we're looking at something in the neighborhood of a 30- to 33-day harvest interval. If it's a grass crop, we may be stretching that to about 42 days."

Like corn and soybeans, forage crops have had problems of their own this spring. The drenching rains weakened alfalfa stands in some areas and freezing temperatures caused crop damage in scattered locations. An alfalfa weevil outbreak hit many farmers in the pocketbook who did not treat their fields with a labeled insecticide.

"This moisture is probably not as bad for pasture as it is for the hay harvest when it collides with planting," Johnson said.

In the days ahead, Johnson recommends forage farmers:

• Scout fields for potato leafhopper. The pest, a danger to alfalfa, secretes a toxin into the plant while feeding, stunting the plant's growth.

• Consider applying phosphorus and/or potassium fertilizer, if needed, after the first crop harvest.

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415, sleer@purdue.edu

Source: Keith Johnson, (765) 494-4800, johnsonk@purdue.edu

Related Web site:
Purdue Forage Information

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes, bforbes@aes.purdue.edu; http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/AgComm/public/agnews/

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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