sealPurdue News

March 3, 2003

Purdue experts give tips to producers foraging for hay

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Tight forage stocks have some livestock owners scratching their heads wondering where to get hay and some producers wondering what they can do to get their hay fields up and running as soon as possible this spring.

"Hay is disappearing at a much faster rate than a year ago. This will lead to even tighter supplies and higher prices by spring," said David Petritz, a Purdue agricultural economist. "Hay prices, especially for better quality dairy and horse hay, have moved higher in recent weeks and weather will dictate whether they go even higher."

Petritz said alfalfa prices in mid-January averaged $168 in Ohio. The Indiana Agricultural Statistics Service does not collect hay price data for Indiana.

Keith Johnson, a Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service forage specialist and professor of agronomy, said several factors are to blame for the tight forage supply.

"Mother Nature wasn't kind last year," Johnson said. "There was too much rain in the spring and drought during the summer. Some producers added to the problem by overgrazing their pastures and risking one more pass with the baler in the fall."

Petritz said those stresses resulted in a poor hay crop throughout much of the state.

"Hay production was estimated to be 1.68 million tons in 2002, the smallest production since 1930," he said.

In response to lower production, Johnson said some producers are asking how to get their fields up to speed as quickly as possible. Other producers are considering putting more acres into hay production, thanks to high hay prices last fall and winter.

"There's no quick and easy fix as far as hay fields and pastures are concerned," Johnson said. "It's best to keep an eye on forages at all times and to use best management practices."

That includes scouting for insects, controlling weeds if appropriate, conducting soil tests and amending if necessary, and harvesting in a timely manner.

"Soil pH, nutrient deficiencies, pathogens, insects, weeds, harvest timing and interval, and weather are all potential stress factors for forages," Johnson said. "Anticipating and reacting to those stresses will result in a better stand and, often, better yields."

Johnson described a good alfalfa stand as one that has 40 stems per square foot, although a lower number can be economically viable if mass per stem is high. A good cool-season grass/legume pasture is one that has two or more legume plants per square foot, and less than 10 percent of the pasture should have visible soil.

He did have a few suggestions for producers looking to jump start a hayfield this year. First, he recommended that farmers watch for winter-annual weeds in alfalfa.

"If weeds are prevalent in an alfalfa field, then it's a good idea to apply a herbicide that's labeled for the specific weed," Johnson said. "Most herbicides labeled for this purpose should be applied after the alfalfa is dormant in the autumn, or before dormancy break in the spring."

It's also a good idea to scout for insects.

"Alfalfa weevil is a first-cutting issue and potato leafhopper is an issue in second and third cuttings."

If damaging insects are at or above the economic threshold, treating the field with an insecticide or harvesting the crop, if it's ready to be harvested, can salvage the field, he said.

Johnson said one of the most important steps is to conduct a soil test and apply nutrients based on the results.

"Too many producers wait until March to take a soil test and find that an application of limestone is recommended to increase soil pH," he said. "Unfortunately, applying limestone is not a snap response. Preferably the limestone would have been applied in the spring, summer or, at the latest, the fall of 2002.

"Some producers apply a fertilizer blend to predominant grass pasture and hay fields without knowing the real nutrient needs based on a soil test. This is not a best management practice."

Both Johnson and Petritz cautioned producers who are thinking about beefing up hay production because of recent price trends.

"In spite of the current above average price levels, hay producers should carefully assess the potential market for increased quantities of hay before expanding their production," Petritz said. "Producers should be prudent when considering expansion unless they have established consistent and dependable market outlets."

Writer: Kay Hostetler, (765) 494-6682,

Sources: David Petritz, (765) 494-8489,

Keith Johnson, (765) 494-4800,

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes,;

Related Web sites:
Purdue Forage Information site
Purdue hay locator site

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