April 22 2024 09:45 AM

Sponsored content provided by Vita Plus. Written by Steve Murty, Vita Plus forage specialist

Midwestern temperatures in the last 90 days have been warmer than typical years. Occasionally, I custom plant some perennial and annual forage crops in central Iowa. On February 15, my phone started ringing with requests to start seeding. Producers wanted to capitalize on the warmer temperatures and asked, “Will the drill be ready? I’m thinking about seeding oats!” On February 26, we planted some oats. On March 19 when I started writing this article, the oats had not yet emerged.

Since then, we’ve seen snow, rain, high temperatures in the 40s, and low temperatures in the teens. The question on my customers’ minds is this: “Will the oats make it?”

Soil moisture and temperature are the most important factors to determine when and if an early seeding can successfully occur. When moisture in the top 3 to 4 inches is at optimal levels, there is less risk of compaction and ideal seed-to-soil is more likely to occur. All seeds require 42% moisture content of the soil with proper oxygen and temperature to begin germination. If the soil is too dry, the seeds do not germinate; if it is too wet, the seeds can rot. Similarly, soil temperature must be warm enough for the plants to germinate.

I think the oats we planted will make it, even with delayed germination. In fact, the delayed germination could prove beneficial as seedlings will not get hit by frost. Small grains are resilient.

Fall-seeded crops are not immune to the impact of these weather anomalies either. The conditions of the crops entering the dormant winter season are key. Some pastures and alfalfa fields were overgrazed or cut late due to a short supply of forage in the drier 2023 growing season. Not allowing perennial forages time to rebuild carbohydrate reserves prior to cooler temperatures may delay or reduce spring production. A recent North Dakota State University study evaluated the effect of fall grazing intensity on forage production the following year. Researchers found that severe fall use reduced forage production by 57% in 2022 and 54% in 2023. This also can apply to a late-cutting of alfalfa and a subsequent first-cutting yield reduction the following spring.

What can be done as we face weather anomalies? First, manage alfalfa fields as a high-value crop. This winter, 180-plus RFV alfalfa hay continued to achieve $300-plus values. Second, monitor fertility levels throughout the production cycle for each forage crop. Soil test fields to create a baseline for fertility and soil pH. Fertilize with phosphorus and potassium to maintain optimum soil test levels. Now is the time to make any corrective lime applications for the new seeding establishment. It takes time to correct severely abnormal pH levels; applications to correct deficiencies should occur a minimum of two years prior to the seeding year.

This season is still young, and a lot can happen. Staying the course and producing high-quality forages based on proven experience will pay dividends.