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Less Drought, More Forage Production Brightens 2024 Forage Outlook

By Russ Quinn

After a couple of growing seasons with major drought issues, the forage outlook appears to be positive heading into the 2024 growing seasons. While there are some pockets where drought is continuing to hang on, more moisture has been present this winter into spring in many areas.

Despite this outlook, the forage crop will certainly face various challenges in the upcoming growing season. Weather, as well as pest issues, will force forage producers to be on their toes in the coming months.

LESS DROUGHT SEEN

Jeff Jackson, a U.S. product manager and forage specialist for Winfield United/CROPLAN, told DTN there appears to be less drought in the Northern and Central Plains. Many areas have seen good moisture this spring and the drought has been shrinking in many locations.

However, the question will be how much moisture these areas will see later in the growing season. Conditions can quickly deteriorate if moisture is not seen, he said.

"With the winds this spring, we are really only about four days away from issues," Jackson said.

Further south, more moisture this spring means the forage crop in Texas is in good shape, according to Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Texas A&M AgriLife Forage Extension Specialist. While some areas are dry, most of east and central Texas has seen good moisture over the winter and into the spring.

Cool season annual forages in eastern Texas have done very well so far this growing season due to timely rainfall events, she said.

Much like Jackson, Corriher-Olson is also concerned about drought returning to the Lone Star State and lowering forage yields.

"It looks like La Nina is coming back in June and will be here to stay for the next 12 to 24 months," Corriher-Olson told DTN.

SCOUT FOR WEEVILS

Jackson said he believes alfalfa acres should remain stable in 2024. With hay prices still elevated, many producers continue to grow alfalfa. With the dry conditions forcing cattle producers to cull their herds, many continued to produce alfalfa to sell.

Alfalfa weevils affect alfalfa production, thus lowering tons are produced. Producers should be scouting their fields now to see if weevils are present, he said.

Jackson's rule is that south of Interstate 90, most producers should spray to keep weevils under control before the first alfalfa cutting. He knows producers who have already sprayed two or even three times to control the pests.

North of the I-90 line, he suggests, producers should take an alfalfa cutting and then scout for the pest after the cutting is put up. If the weevil count is past the economic threshold, then producers should treat their alfalfa fields.

"Producers in that Nebraska and South Dakota line over to the Iowa and Minnesota line should be scouting every three days, not every week, as that might be too long of time to scout," he said.

FORAGE GROWTH AHEAD OF NORMAL

Forage producer Maria Cox, White Hall, Illinois, said her crop is ahead of schedule, thanks to warm weather and moisture during the winter and spring. A warmer February allowed her to reseed some areas in her grass hay fields, and since then, she has seen significant rains.

She estimates growth is a couple of weeks ahead of normal. Hay fields are in good shape, and with some dry fertilizer applied, they are off to a good start, she said.

A good portion of the hay that Cox sells went to the dry regions of Missouri and Illinois last season. Her hay was sold out by December, three full months ahead of normal.

"I don't think there is much carryover in this area," she said. "I'm already booking bales for customers for their cow grass hay needs for winter 2024 and spring 2025."

Cox suggested that customers calculate what they need for this year and book it to make sure they have enough for winter. Hay prices are comparable to last year at this time, she said.

Enough though the first grass cutting looks to be good, "you never know what the whole growing season will bring," Cox said.

WATCH GRAZING MANAGEMENT

Producers that graze livestock also need to pay close attention to management to ensure the crop is in good condition as the grazing season begins.

James Rogers, a North Dakota State University Extension Specialist for Forage Crops Production, said if proper grazing management was followed in the fall with the moisture seen this spring, pastures and rangeland should be in good condition.

North Dakota appears to be a state of haves and have-nots. Most of the state is good moisture-wise but some locations are still dry. Counties along the Canadian border might be on the dry side after last year compared to other more southern counties, he said.

Rogers suggested producers take a closer look at what grasses are growing this season in pastures and rangeland. Annual grasses, such as bluegrass, can take over acres in grasslands quickly, he said.

"Just as we tell producers to limit grazing pressure, more grazing pressure on these areas would be needed if you wanted to limit bluegrass," he said.

Producers should consider three points when thinking about grazing management, he said. Looking at the situation now, looking back at grazing and predicting forward what could be there for grazing, is a good way to operate with grazing management.

MORE GRASS TO GRAZE?

One producer with a positive outlook this spring is Casey Schuhmacher. The rancher, based in Chadron, Nebraska, said this growing season is shaping up to be a good one.

The growing season has had its challenges early in 2024 with warm temperatures and little snow in the winter. The wind always seems to be blowing in this spring, he said.

Despite this, Schuhmacher believes they are a little above average in terms of both soil moisture and grass production so far this growing season.

"We are in the second productive year of a yellow sweet clover flush, and we are looking to capitalize on the extra forage and keep it from shading out the grass," Schuhmacher said

The biggest challenge in his home area of northwestern Nebraska might be the uncooperative weather. A late freeze or moisture shutting off as it warms up into May are always major concerns, he said.

Mother Nature has been fairly kind this year it seems, Schuhmacher said.

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