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June 21, 2007

Specialists: Weather extremes landing haymakers on hay crops

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Indiana hayfields are getting it from both ends of the thermometer this spring. Even the rain gauge has turned against them.

An April freeze hurt the crop's first harvest, while recent heat and near-drought conditions threaten to reduce future harvests and winter hay inventories, Purdue University Cooperative Extension specialists said.

"The first hay crop cutting, from reports and my own work, suggests that yields were significantly less than what we would have expected," said Keith Johnson, Purdue forage specialist. "I would classify what most people have harvested as being a typical second, third or fourth kind of harvest.

"As a percentage of crop taken for the season, the first harvest makes up the largest percentage. If future harvests do not yield well, that doesn't bode very well for hay inventory to be fed to our livestock."

Johnson and Ron Lemenager, Purdue beef specialist, said first harvest losses ranged from 20 percent to 70 percent across the state. Forages and pastures could recover and still provide adequate hay supplies, but only if sufficient rain is forthcoming.

"There are areas within the state now that have gone extended periods of time without significant rainfall," Lemenager said. "And so, we not only have a short first cutting, but now the recovery of those hay crops for the second cutting and potential third cutting is starting to diminish. As a result, producers who have been used to four cuttings may only get three."

First cuttings of alfalfa hay were nearly complete in Indiana by Sunday (June 10), the Purdue-based Indiana Agricultural Statistics Service (IASS) reported. Some livestock operations already had turned to feeding hay because of deteriorating pasture conditions.

Eighty-six percent of Indiana pastures were rated "fair" to "very poor" this past Sunday, with 14 percent rated "good" and zero percent rated "excellent," the IASS reported. For the week ended June 10, 32 percent of pastures statewide were rated "good" to "excellent."

With regular rainfall and best management practices, alfalfa should yield about 6 tons and grass crops around 4 tons of hay per acre annually, Johnson said. Producers with poor yields in moisture-sufficient growing seasons should examine their management strategies, he said.

"We need to be aware of the soil fertility status," Johnson said. "Anything that's in that less-than-medium-level soil test certainly is a concern and it would be in the best interest of the producer to implement a fertilization program."

Producers who graze livestock in a rotational paddock system can stockpile forage, unlike those who utilize a continuous grazing system, Johnson said. Stockpiling involves setting aside some of the paddocks - usually about 25 percent of the pasture - around mid-August, so that it can produce forage for future grazing. The set aside portion is left undisturbed to grow, while the remaining 75 percent is grazed by animals.

"If we stockpile our forages, we can stretch the grazing season significantly," Johnson said. "If we defer grazing on a paddock that's growing grass in September and October, that allows us, then, to potentially have more days of grazing in November, December and, possibly, January. That has a strong economic benefit because we do not have to feed as much hay, then, during the late fall and early winter season."

While grazing can extend forage availability if done right, producers should make sure livestock aren't allowed to consume too much in one location, Lemenager said.

"I would suggest that a producer avoid overgrazing," he said. "Take your forages down to maybe a 3-inch or 4-inch stubble height. The old adage of taking half, leaving half is really a pretty good one.

"There is data that suggests that if you remove 50 percent of the leaf material, about 2 percent of the roots will stop growing. If you take 60 percent of the leaf material, you will stop 50 percent of the roots from growing. And if you take 80 percent of the leaf material, you will essentially stop all root growth. That is significant because those roots are really important, in terms of absorption of moisture and nutrients and regrowth."

Lemenager and Johnson offered additional recommendations for helping hay crops survive this spring and for extending stocks later this year:

* Store combinations of such feed products as wet distillers grains, wet gluten feed, dry distillers grains and green chop as a silage. The most nutritional combination is 75 percent green chop and 25 percent soybean hulls.

* Following wheat harvest, plant summer-annual grasses such as sudangrass, sorghum-sudangrass hybrids and pearl millet, spring oat or forage turnips, to create additional forage supplies. "Be advised that seed inventory of many summer-annual grasses is unfortunately a concern, too," Johnson said.

* Check hay crops for pests. One of the most devastating is the potato leafhopper, an insect that damages alfalfa.

* Adopt forage-conserving livestock management practices, including early calf weaning, creep feeding and determining pregnancy status of cows 35 days after breeding season.

For more information on hay production, visit the Purdue Forage Information Web site at

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415,

Sources: Keith Johnson, (765) 494-4800,

Ron Lemenager, (765) 494-4817,

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

Note to Journalists: Other farm-related story ideas are available on Purdue Agriculture's Farming 2007 Web site at

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