High nitrogen prices could hinder hay expansion in Kentucky, Tennessee

Despite unusually high prices for hay, don't look for a lot of new land to come into forages in the two major forage-producing states of Kentucky and Tennessee, say Extension personnel.

“We have essentially no hay stocks thanks to the drought and freeze of 2007,” says Gary Bates, University of Tennessee Extension forage specialist. “Our cattlemen have been buying hay for quite a long time.”

Prices are high. Grass hay is routinely advertised at $150 a ton and higher, with alfalfa hay at $200 a ton and up, he says.

“There certainly is some price incentive to increase hay production, but the problem is the high fertilizer prices,” says Bates. “Can you afford to push production as high as possible when nitrogen costs two or three times as much as it has in the past?

“What I think we might see is farmers pushing a few acres for highest production and following a normal program on the rest.”

In Kentucky, hay stocks have fallen to the lowest levels in at least 10 years, says Extension ag economist Kenny Burdine. “Many cow-calf producers were suffering from lack of feed over the winter and were scrambling to find hay. As a result, I see a lot of interest in increasing hay production in 2008.”

But he questions how far that will materialize.

“I see hay acres in Kentucky steady at best,” he says. “Besides the rise in fertilizer costs, the prices of corn and soybeans will make those crops very competitive on some of the land that might go into pastures.”

There is definitely interest in converting some hay ground to row crops, he says. “And we are also going to have fewer beef cows because of culling, which could affect the demand.”

Bernie Cave produces alfalfa hay, usually with orchardgrass or timothy in it, and feeds it to his 14 harness racehorses and to his registered Angus cattle herd.

“Kentucky has the greatest forage potential of any state in the union. We have deep limestone-based soils,” he says. “Alfalfa grown here can tolerate drought and wet weather. One problem: In a wet year, we might not have enough curing weather for alfalfa. You need a Haybine to crimp the plant so moisture can readily escape.”

He usually includes a grass in his alfalfa plantings, usually orchardgrass. “I have used timothy. I like that it doesn't compete with the alfalfa. But timothy only gives one cutting per year. Orchardgrass grows back better.”

A little johnsongrass doesn't hurt, he says. “Horses love it. But you can get too much.”

Assuming normal rainfall, Cave cuts his alfalfa every 30 to 35 days after the first cutting.

“That's usually four to five cuttings per year, with a yield of maybe five tons per acre,” he says. “It helps if you can graze the top off with your cattle after freeze down in the fall. This grazing will also help control alfalfa weevils in the spring.”

If you have a normal pattern with adequate curing weather, alfalfa can compete well with row crops, Cave says. “But in a wet season you may have a problem.”

The best steps to insure a good hay crop, says Bates, are to soil test as soon as possible and treat as they indicate. Then get any weeds you may have under control in the spring. You don't want to waste expensive fertilizer on them.

Renovation can pay big dividends in quality and nitrogen savings. “Get red or white clover into every acre you can,” says Bates.

But there is one exception to that. “If you are selling hay to horse owners, you would rather not have clover in it, because the clover takes longer to dry out.”

In Kentucky, Extension specialists suggest that an early application of nitrogen at low rates this spring may encourage growth in these fields.

Application of 30 to 60 pounds per acre of nitrogen as soon as the grass greens up can permit grazing one or two weeks earlier. “If you are going to be cutting a hay crop from the field, then a higher rate of nitrogen would be used,” says Ray Smith, University of Kentucky Extension forage specialist.

But in Tennessee, growers are advised there is a risk with this practice because of late freezes that can cause you to lose some or all of the value of the nitrogen, If you want to promote early forage growth to decrease hay feeding, you may want to treat only a limited number of acres to reduce the risk.

Also, apply the nitrogen to fields that do not have a stand of clover. Nitrogen applications to grass/clover fields can result in the stimulation of the grass stand and the loss of the clover component.

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