The growing season is off to an unexpected start. This news seems to be like a rinse and repeat cycle, with unexpected weather patterns becoming the norm over the past few years. Whatever conditions existed a year prior are subject to flip. After the flip, we then find ourselves farming under substantially different growing conditions, for better or for worse.

No pun intended here, but as we wade into the 2024 growing season, all of the major dairy forage and feed growing regions across the U.S. have little to no drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor for the first time in the past decade per my memory. Some of the water and rainfall has come through major weather systems with severe weather conditions. Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by tornados and extreme winds.

Corn planting seems to be progressing at or ahead of long-term trends for the U.S. as a whole, though there are some who haven’t been able to get in fields to plant corn and some who have emerging corn being drowned or washed out. This topic may be a subject for later this year, but we’re still fairly early in the growing season and have time to get corn in the ground or replanted.

Undoubtedly, the weather patterns and growing conditions continue to affect forage yield and quality. Along these lines, hay and haylage crop quality is the focus with this newsletter article.

Crop physiology and early season growth are contrasting with long-term experience in the Midwest. In recent conversations with a Michigan nutritionist, he let me know he was observing that the predictive equations for alfalfa quality (PEAQ), based upon plant height, are failing to reliably forecast first crop quality this year. Checking out the early season work by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension team and Liz Gartman here, we find their team has noted substantial deviations between PEAQ measures and scissor clipping forage quality samples with alfalfa in 2024.

With the leaf-to-stem ratio driving protein and fiber levels in alfalfa quality, growing conditions also influence lignification and fiber digestibility. With about a month of feed analysis data in the books at Rock River Laboratory, quality looks great for the Midwest. Remember that 2023 was an excellent year for haylage quality, and the first month in 2024 looks to be even better. Fiber levels are down and sugar levels are up for samples hitting the laboratory. Something may be changing this year with plant growth and development. Stay tuned for further discussion on this topic as the year progresses and we have more quality observations to work with.

Many are also experiencing that alfalfa is progressing toward bud and flower stage at a slower pace relative to prior years, yet still stretching out in height. The height is advancing faster than physiological maturity to some extent. This observation likely is the reason behind unreliable PEAQ measures this year. Stems also look thinner to some, and lodging has become a concern. Lignification may have changed substantially this year, though time will tell.

Out West, the first month’s hay total digestible nutrients (TDN) and fiber content is holding constant and contrasting a strong downward trend in TDN over this same time period in 2023. We’ll zero in a bit more on this trend over the next four to eight weeks as the season progresses.

Moving East, the early season quality doesn’t appear to be trending differently relative to prior norms. Fiber, protein, and sugar levels are in line with long-term averages.

Down South, wheat harvest is underway without notable trends to speak of yet. However, the unexpected weather and rainfall have introduced challenges to be sure. We’ll continue to monitor quality as the season plays out.

This has been a fascinating start to the year for me as an adviser and student of our dairy industry. I’ll continue to learn from all of you and your experiences and then aim to connect science to the ever-changing conditions and forage quality outcomes. We need to link the two so that we can continue making gains in forage management and efficiency in the months and years ahead.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
May 30, 2024
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