KFB Candid Conversation with Jimmy Henning: Looking at Forages From a Crop Perspective

Posted on Nov 8, 2021
Jimmy Henninger, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment Extension Forage Specialist

KFB Candid Conversation presents a discussion about the topical issues related to KFB priorities, the agricultural industry, and rural communities, in a question and answer format. In this column, Jimmy Henning, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment Extension Forage Specialist discusses forages and what producers experienced this growing season.

How would you rate our pasture conditions through this spring, summer and fall?

This has been an exceptionally good pasture year. First, we did not have an overly wet winter that spared winter feeding areas from excessive hoof damage for the most part. We did have a good bit of buttercup in some pastures, which I believe can be traced back to the devastatingly muddy winter of 2018-19. Regardless of the cause, surveys show buttercup to be on the increase in Kentucky.

Temperatures and rainfall were well suited for growth of pastures. We even had a very uncharacteristic week of low humidity week and bright sun in May that allowed a lot of good forage to be harvested. Temperatures across the summer were mild, with only a few days above 90o F.  Rainfall was generally adequate as well. Temperatures were seasonal to even slightly cool in the fall and rainfall was good during this period.

As a result, pasture conditions have been good to excellent all year. If there has been a downside to the mild temperatures and the timely rain, it has been a great year for weeds.

What were some of the challenges producers faced this year?

Producers this year have faced the usual problems of possibly having pasture damage due to hay feeding as well as getting hay harvested on time without rain damage. But there have been some unusual problems. One of these problems stems for the effects of COVID on availability of trucking. This makes some products hard to get or not available at all. This problem involves everything from parts to seed. Most of our forage grass seed is produced on the west coast, and needs to be transported quickly after harvest and cleaning to get here in time for fall seedings. Most forage vendors will tell you that finding transportation that is timely and cost effective has been difficult.

In 2021, we had a very large problem with fall armyworms across almost all of Kentucky. Fall armyworms are rarely a problem in Central Kentucky and are more common in West Kentucky. However, this year, they greatly impacted forage stands across the state, especially new stands and alfalfa. We also had a longer period of time where these pests were causing economic damage. COVID hurt with this problem as well, because the insecticides needed for armyworm control were not in stock when needed, and getting these delivered to vendors was also difficult.

How well positioned are our livestock producers with a winter hay supply?

This is a bright spot in Kentucky this year. For the most part, our hay supplies are excellent, and much of that got put up early and without rain damage. It is a very good idea to get all of their hay tested for nutritive value this year and to develop a feeding strategy early. There is a lot of upward pressure on most of the farm commodities so knowing what you will need and booking that early can save a lot of money. Another point to realize about hay is the value of the fertilizer nutrients in the forage. Each ton of hay will have about 45 pounds of nitrogen, 15 pounds of phosphorus (as P2O5) and 50 pounds of potassium (as K2O) or well over $50 per ton in today’s fertilizer prices. Feeding that hay on low fertility areas can really boost the soil nutrients in those fields.

Were there a lot of weed issues this year, and if so, what can producers do about that?

One of the downsides of rain is that it does tend to promote weeds, and we have had good rains this year. Weeds are a fact of life in our perennial forages and we need a holistic approach to weed management. Some weeds actually can be useful forages. Crabgrass and johnsongrass are two examples. Crabgrass is highly palatable and nutritious, and is a benefit to pasture systems. It can be a weed in some settings (like alfalfa or alfalfa/grass produced for cash hay). Johnsongrass is a little more problematic in that it encroaches in cool season grass hay fields and may not be desirable. However, it too is highly digestible when in the vegetative stage. I have even known producers with significant amounts of johnsongrass to actually manager it for hay, like a perennial sorghum, which it actually is!

We also know that managing our forages so we have a thick and vigorous stand is part of a holistic weed strategy. In a three year trial in Powell County, we were able to suppress weeds and even broomsedge by correcting the nutrient deficiencies in a tall fescue hayfield.

Chemical control is always an option and we are fortunate to have three excellent (and recently revised) University of Kentucky publications on forage weed control. These are: Weed management in pastures, hayfields and other farmstead sites (http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/agr/agr172/agr172.pdf), Broadleaf weeds of Kentucky pastures (http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/AGR/AGR207/AGR207.pdf) and Weed control in alfalfa and other forage legume crops (http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/agr/agr148/agr148.pdf).

Is it fair to look at our forages as another crop?

I think it is. It is easy to think of our cash hay operations as cropping operations. It is a bit harder to quantify our forage crops than corn and soybeans for example. I do know that Kentucky Ag Statistics does do a survey of acres of forage crops periodically, but that information often undercounts the acreage and value of forage crops to Kentucky.

I saw many producers working on a third cutting this fall. Is that unusual for this area?

It is a bit unusual, since fall is historically the driest season of the year in Kentucky. You don’t have to go back too many years (Fall of 2019) to find one of those very dry (and hot) Septembers. We did get rain after that, and some were able to get a cutting late that year, too. These fall hay crops can be very high in quality, especially tall fescue. These cuttings may also have a lot of mature summer weeds in them, like foxtail, that diminish the quality. As always, we would recommend getting this hay tested. What I think producers will find is that the nutrition in those bales are generally higher than first cuttings and can be very valuable to feed late gestation and lactating cows in winter.

We had a lot of people considering taking a late cut of alfalfa this year also, and there are a lot of things to consider before making that harvest. As always, we want to have 4 to 6 weeks of regrowth before the first killing frost. Here is a quick list of factors that might support a late summer cut of alfalfa.

  • If you need the feed.
  • Alfalfa is well rested and mature (blooming).
  • The variety has good disease resistance to our major pathogens.
  • The field has been well managed during the year (weeds, cutting schedule, insects, soil fertility).
  • The stand established but young (18 to 36 months). Young stands are more resilient because their crowns have less damage due to traffic and root disease.

What are some of the learning opportunities available to producers when it comes to their forages?

We have many educational opportunities each year sponsored by the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Forage and Grassland Council. These include hands on activities like our grazing schools and fencing schools as well as periodic field days and farm tours. Two upcoming events to put on your calendars are Forages at KCA (Jan 13-14, Lexington, Kentucky Cattleman’s Association Annual Meeting) and the 2022 Alfalfa and Stored Forage Conference (February 24, 2022, Warren County Extension Office, Bowling Green). To see a full list of upcoming events, please point your browser to http://forages.ca.uky.edu/events, or just do what I do and type UKY FORAGES EVENTS into your internet browser.