Many farms look forward to the arrival of spring and the start of the growing season, but the change in seasons brought unpleasant surprises to farms across northern New England last year. As the snow receded and everything around them greened up, some of their hayfields stayed brown - large patches or even the entire field having died off over the winter. It’s not unusual for older, diseased alfalfa stands to not make it through the winter, but this time young stands and new seedings got hit as hard as the old ones.
Most of the blame can be placed on the weather. A majority of our common forage species can withstand the cold of winter well enough, but we get the best results when, once it gets cold, it stays cold and there’s a deep blanket of snow to provide insulation. Instead, we saw fluctuating temperatures that led to shallow, crusty snow cover or smothering ice sheets.
Without trying to be an alarmist, it could be a similar situation this season. According to the Northeast Regional Climate Center, January’s precipitation has been 25-50% of normal for most of the state, the average temperature has been five or more degrees above normal – remember those 65-degree days mid-month? As of this writing, most of the fields in Cheshire County are covered with just a few inches of crusty snow and ice; there isn’t much to protect forages from a mid-winter cold snap. With that in mind, it’s not too early to think about how you might deal with severe winter injury.
Perhaps the simplest solution is to overseed the field. There are a number of no-till drills available for rent around the state if you don’t have one of your own, and it’s relatively easy to try to reestablish a growing forage stand. On the other hand, you’ll be missing out on the first cutting and won’t get much for the second, so make sure you don’t run out of feed. Also, remember that autotoxicity in alfalfa means that trying to reestablish it in a former stand is not an option, though grasses will do just fine.
If your grow corn, you can plant it in injured sites; the winter will have done much of the work that herbicides or plowing would have accomplished. However, extra corn acreage may not work if you don’t have the storage capacity, if it interferes with your crop rotation or feeding program, or if the site just isn’t suitable for growing corn. On the bright side though, there’s likely enough nitrogen in the soil to feed a good crop, and there’s a good chance that weed pressures will be low.
If corn isn’t an option, consider summer annuals. Since they’re planted later, it won’t add too much to your to-do list at a time when you're concentrating on getting the reminder of your first cutting in. Sorghum, sudangrass, and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids offer high yields and high quality, with a nutritional profile that’s similar to other forage crops. Even better, you can likely get two good cuttings by early August. This can give you enough time to establish a late summer seeding or get a good start on sowing cereal grains for winter forage the next year.
If your forage inventory is so low that you need feed now, or if switching to corn or other forage crops is not feasible, Tom Kilcer of Advanced Ag Systems in Kinderhook, NY recommends no-till oats sown with red clover. The oats will be ready to harvest by mid-late June (when it’s at the flag leaf stage, just before the head emerges), and the clover will provide forage for another couple years to keep your rotation on track. Red clover isn’t affected by alfalfa’s autotoxicity, and over the years Tom has found it to be a reliable, less demanding crop.
An easy winter can lead to a tricky spring when it comes to forage production. Hopefully we won’t experience the same losses as we did last year, but remember that you’ve got options to keep your bunkers full and your animals fed if we do.
And one more thing! If you do see winter injury, make sure you contact your county FSA office and let them know. It helps them document crop injury in the area, and they may be able to direct you towards assistance.