Frequent rains help pastures, hurt first alfalfa harvestFARGO, N.D. — Wheat, corn and sugar beet crops generally are looking good in Minnesota and North Dakota’s Red River Valley, but a remarkably high number of soybean fields are turning yellow with an iron deficiency that could cut yields.
By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek
Frequent June rains across the region have been a mixed blessing for area ranchers and dairy producers.
The moisture has helped pastures but hampered the first harvest of dairy-quality alfalfa.
“High-quality forage is the foundation of dairy, and there’s been difficulty in getting it in the condition we want,” says Jim Stordahl, a University of Minnesota extension educator based in McIntosh, in northwestern Minnesota.
But the moisture is good for area pastures, which got off to a fast start because of the early spring.
“Tell everybody we look like Ireland,” says Kim Baker, a Hot Spring, Mont., rancher and president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association.
Ireland sometimes is known as the Emerald Isle because of its frequent rains and lush vegetation.
In Montana, 79 percent of pasture is rated good or excellent, compared with 57 percent a year ago, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Above-average rainfall is common throughout the state, not just parts of it.
Most of Montana’s 83 weather reporting stations have received at least one more inch of rain than normal so far this year, according to USDA figures.
Baker, a rancher for 40 years, says current pasture conditions are easily among the past she can remember.
Heavy snows in the winter of 1996-97 and heavy rains after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state in May 1980 also led to good pasture years, but it’s hard to top the conditions created by consistent rains this year, she says.
Few, if any, Montana ranchers have cut any hay yet, so all the rain hasn’t hurt hay quality, she says.
“I don’t know anyone who’s even taken the swather out yet,” she says.
Good pastures elsewhere
In North Dakota, 83 percent of pasture was rated good or excellent in late June, USDA says.
That’s up from 66 percent a year ago.
Eighty-nine percent of South Dakota pasture is in good or excellent condition. That compares with 73 percent a year ago.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the pastures look better. It’s just a phenomenal year for grass and livestock,” says Bill Slovek, a Philip, S.D., producer and vice president of the South Dakota Cattleman’s Association. But frequent rains have complicated the hay harvest. Virtually all the hay that’s been bailed and put up has suffered rain damage, and some cut hay still remains in the field, he says.
Slovek says he’d rather have too much rain than not enough.
“What they say here in western South Dakota is, ‘We’re always only two weeks away from a drought.’ So, we’ll take the rain,” he says.
In Minnesota, 86 percent of pasture rated good or excellent, up from 53 percent a year ago.
An unusually early spring in the state accelerated plant growth. Minnesota producers statewide had cut 70 percent of their alfalfa by June 6, compared with the 2004-09 average of only 30 percent, according to USDA.
In northwestern Minnesota, frequent rains have hurt many first cutting of alfalfa intended for dairy, Stordahl says.
Some of those cuttings have gone into bailage, he says
Bailage is forage that’s bailed and stored in a sealed container, often a plastic bag or wrapper.
Dusty Willow Dairy near Lakota, N.D., chopped up most of its first alfalfa cutting for haylage, which has a higher moisture content than regular hay, says general manager Kent Swenson.
He says he’s reasonably happy with the quality, although mud was a problem.
Rain hurts quality
Frequent rains leach nutritional value from forage, says J.W. Schroeder, dairy specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service in Fargo.
Research shows that a fast, hard rain does much more damage than a slow, gentle rain even when they leave the same amount of precipitation, he says.
Dairy producers without enough high-quality forage need to buy replacement feed, which is expensive, he says.
Low milk prices already make it difficult for area dairy producers to break even, much less make money, so additional expense is particularly unwelcome this year.
Typically, dairy producers in this area hope for three cuttings of alfalfa every year and aim for a combination of quality and quantity from those cutting, he says.
The longer the area’s weather remains wet, the less likely three cuttings becomes, he says.
Don’t expect the wet trend to change anytime soon.
Forecasts call for above-average precipitation in the next 30 days for the Upper Midwest.