Winter kills alfalfa across southern Minnesota

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Roger Henry will replant a significant number of alfalfa fields with corn due to the freezing rain that fell in February. "I've been a farmer for forty years and I've never seen a year like this," Henry said.

The winter wasn't kind to alfalfa.

Bill Hammel, who's been around forages for 35 years, said he's never before seen this much winterkill. He estimates that stands more than a year old are 60 percent to 70 percent killed in Wabasha, Olmsted, Winona and Fillmore counties.

"It's the worst I've seen in 40-some years of farming. It's not good," said Roger Henry, who farms six miles north of Dover. Henry has about 200 acres of alfalfa, and he figures he'll be able to salvage about 75.

The damage ranges from "not too bad" to "oh my, this is horrible," in the same field. He can see where the water ran and where it froze over, sealing the alfalfa in ice.

Ice sheeting because of snow melt and rainfall in January and February is cited by the University of Minnesota Extension as one cause of severe winter injury and winterkill. Other factors include: A dry fall and early winter that may have prevented alfalfa from accumulating adequate root reserves to survive the unusually long dormant period; periods without snow cover; and long periods of snow cover and low temperatures that prevented spring alfalfa regrowth when reserves were low.


Hammel, a dairy specialist with All-American Cooperative, said alfalfa was under a lot of stress last year. Many farmers took four, if not five crops.

It's tough to predict how alfalfa will survive, but the winter seemed to have had a devastating effect, Hammel said.

Alden farmer Dan Erickson said he will be unable to save any of his alfalfa that is two years old and older. From what he understands, the unusual amount of winterkill and winter injury covers a large area from southern Wisconsin across southern Minnesota and northern Iowa into southern South Dakota.

He has already planted a pea and oat mix as an emergency forage and plans to harvest that in 60 days to feed the replacement heifers he raises. He will follow the pea and oat mix with sorghum-Sudan grass.

Each field is different, and every producer will need to look at the field to determine what needs to be done, Ehrhardt said. In some fields, producers may be able to interplant Italian ryegrass to boost the amount of forage. In others, they may want to plant an emergency forage.

Farmers have been buying just enough hay to get by, a half load or a load at a time. They're buying because they have to, not because they want to and there's not a lot of hay left. Some farmers who may have sold the hay they have left in the shed are holding on to it because of the uncertainty of what they have in the field, especially if they have their own cattle to feed.

Last year, farmers were able to cut hay the second or third week of May. This year, they're looking at June 1, Kath said.

Extension educator Dave Nicolai said the winterkill appears widespread throughout the southern third of the state. Up toward Fergus Falls and St. Cloud, the alfalfa looks much better.

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