By Joel Bagg Forage Specialist OMAFRA
Forage inventories are generally more than adequate, with good spring carry-overs. With lots of rain, yields were good but it was sometimes challenging to make dry hay without rain-damage. Considerable haylage, baleage and poor to good quality hay were made. Premium "horse quality" green, dust-free first-cut hay and dairy hay is a bit more limited in supply and selling at higher prices. Export demand for quality hay to the U.S. remains strong.
Alfalfa winterkill and stand vigour: Alfalfa winterkill and winter injury were reported across much of the province, including some new seedings and also orchardgrass. Many areas in the normally lower risk western and central Ontario were hit hard with extensive damage, where even some of the better fields suffered a small amount of damage in low spots. Winterkill in the higher risk Ottawa Valley was only about 10 per cent winterkill, except for areas along the St. Lawrence which had up to 80 per cent. Cumulative management stresses that worsened the situation included late-fall cutting, poor soil fertility and pH, lack of potato leafhopper management (in 2012), and fall traffic damage from manure tankers. Environmental risk factors included the wet late-fall that reduced winter hardening, water ponding and icing, extreme cold temperatures, and crown and root disease.
Fertility: Low soil phosphorus (P below 12 ppm) and potassium (K below 120) are significantly limiting forage yields in many fields. Some dramatic yield responses were seen this year when sulphur (S) was applied to alfalfa. A response is more likely on low organic matter soils, or those that have not received manure in the last two years. Tissue sampling alfalfa is a good diagnostic tool to predict a S response (< than 0.25% S). Applying elemental-S bulk blended with other fertilizer is the most cost effective method of providing S, but spring applications of sulphate (ammonium sulphate, potassium sulphate, Sul-Po-Mag or K-Mag, or calcium sulphate) provide a more immediate yield response.
New seedings: Forage acreage is now holding its own, following significant reductions from 2006 to 2011. With high beef prices and low corn and soybean prices, forages are very competitive. Forage seed sales remain steady as farmers established new stands to replace older, less productive and winterkilled stands. A cool, wet spring with poor soil conditions delayed new seedings past optimal dates. This year's summer seedings completed during optimum seeding dates in August appear to have been successful. Whereas spring seedings typically have a yield loss the year of establishment, summer seedings (seeded after cereals are harvested) can be a good way to establish new fields so that full season yields can be harvested the following year.
Brown root rot, Aphanomyces root rot and other disease: Brown root rot (BRR) is a widespread fungus disease of alfalfa in Ontario, causing winterkill, stand decline and yield loss. Aphanomyces root rot (ARR) is a major disease of alfalfa seedlings, which also dramatically reduces yields and vigour of established stands. The presence of Race 2 ARR in Ontario is confirmed and resistant varieties are commercially available. An alfalfa disease survey indicates that the traditional fungal diseases are very common. With the wet season, there were reports of orchardgrass suffering from fungus disease and some in timothy.
Insects: Grubs, including June beetles and European chafers, typically cause damage to grass hay fields in lighter soil areas, especially in central Ontario. Alfalfa snout beetle continues to be reported in small pockets in eastern Ontario. Some alfalfa weevil damage occurred in southwestern Ontario, but very little was sprayed. Potato leafhopper (PLH) was not significant this year. PLH feeding on alfalfa can cause significant yield losses and damage to new seedings. Reduced yield and vigour in severely damaged stands carries over to future years, and can result in increased risk of winterkill.
First-cut yields and quality: First-cut yields were quite variable, with some winter injured fields in western Ontario yielding very poorly, while some areas in eastern Ontario had very high yields. With some cooler than normal weather, the proportion of grass in mixed stands and the grass maturity relative to alfalfa was more advanced. Alfalfa development and growth was delayed 10–14 days behind normal. Harvest of first-cut "dairy quality" alfalfa haylage did not begin until June 1 in much of southern Ontario. Forage quality (crude protein, fibre and fibre digestibilities) was generally close to normal. Weather conditions for making quality first-cut hay without rain-damage were challenging, so considerable amounts of baleage were made or propionic acid used. Many farmers wanting to make green, dust-free hay for the horse market were forced to delay cutting.
Second, third and fourth cuts: Second and third-cut yields were variable, but were typically average or above average. Where fourth-cuts were taken, yield and quality were very good. There was again significant harvest during September. Depending on the age of the stand, fertility, pH, drainage, and fall and winter weather conditions, this may increase the risk of alfalfa winterkill.
Double crop forages: Double cropping with summer seeded annuals to produce low cost forage is becoming more common. Fields are seeded in August following winter wheat and spring cereals, and harvested as haylage and baleage. Annual forage crops include cereals (mostly oats, but also some barley and triticale) and cereal-pea mixtures, and also warm season annuals such as sorghum-sudangrass. Italian ryegrass seeded in August, overwintered, and harvested in May is another increasingly popular option because of high forage quality. There was also some September and early-October seedings of fall rye and triticale, which will be harvested as haylage in May.