MANAWA — Former Fond du Lac County UW-Extension Crops and Soils Agent Mike Rankin said he worked a lot with Wisconsin’s alfalfa-based forages before retiring from Extension a few years ago, but when he started traveling the country as managing editor for Hay and Forage Growers magazine, he found there was a lot more to know.
“I spent most of my life here in Wisconsin. I know alfalfa, I know corn silage, I know dairy cows, but you get outside to some of these other areas, yeah, there’s alfalfa and dairy cows in other parts of the country, but they do it in an entirely different way in some cases than what we do here,” he told attendees Feb. 9 at the Waupaca County Forage Council annual meeting.
The big picture across the country drives what happens in Wisconsin, Rankin said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hay stocks have been building fairly rapidly since the drought years of 2011 and 2012, but the build is slowing as hay prices begin to drop and farmers in states like California replant their land to more lucrative crops.
“They are farmers. They want to make money, and there are alternatives that give them a better return, and one of those is almond trees or nut trees,” Rankin said. “They treat these fields like we treat a field of soybeans or corn. If almonds are making money, they’ll be planting almonds instead of corn, or alfalfa or something else, and they’ll be right up next to the dairy barns.”
California dairy farmers have also reduced the amount of alfalfa fed to their dairy cattle from a high of 12 pounds per head per day to less than 8 pounds. Some of the hay that used to go into those cows is now being exported.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out there is a huge gorilla in the room here by the name of China. Only a few years ago, they weren’t even on the export map,” Rankin said.
China now imports more than a million metric tons of alfalfa to feed their booming dairy industry, “and there’s no indication here that this is slowing down.”
That demand also drives what kind of hay is grown. China will not take genetically modified hay (Roundup Ready), “and if they find it, they’ll just send it back,” Rankin said.
Another story in U.S. forages is being written by Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have banned irrigation on forage fields there. In response, Saudis are buying thousands of acres of western farmland to grow alfalfa and ship it to their dairies in the Middle East.
Beyond the quantity of alfalfa available, there are other issues and opportunities to consider about these forages, Rankin said.
Reduced lignin strains have been a topic of discussion for at least a decade, and now they are here, he said. Transgenic traits are available, but seed sold in 2016 was pretty much all the same varieties.
“Now, in 2017, each company has its own. Now the real challenge will be sorting out the differences between Company A and Company B,” he said. “But research shows this stuff does what they say it will.”
Dairy producers are seeing a lot of baleage, but there are other feeds being used heavily in livestock systems, like cover crops, annual forages and cereal forage. Rankin said he sees a lot of the cereal crops in the east and south, and even baled peanut vines on southern farms.
He said it was intriguing to see single annual cuttings of alfalfa coming off of high-country farms in the west and forages growing 365 days a year in Florida and the southeast. There, cool-season grasses are planted for winter pasture.
Rankin identified some challenges for the future of forages. The industry needs to learn a lot more about forage digestibility, he said, but that may be hampered by waning university support and research.
“A lot of universities are not filling forage positions whether in Extension or research, and I don’t know what impact that is going to have down the road. I don’t know who is going to train new people to be forage agronomists,” he said.