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Knowing when it’s ‘hay day’

A provincial sampling program helps producers decide the best time to cut alfalfa for maximum RFV

An alfalfa-monitoring program designed more than 20 years ago continues to pay dividends for Manitoba dairy producers and the domestic and export dairy hay industry.

Manitoba Forage and Grasslands Association’s (MFGA) “Green Gold” program just wrapped up the program’s 23rd year of helping to predict “Hay Day” — the date when harvested pure alfalfa stands are at optimum quality 150 Relative Feed Value (RFV).

“Due to unusual environmental conditions such as cool weather and extreme warming conditions, we have seen alfalfa reach optimum quality well before the traditional early bloom stage,” says MFGA Chair Darren Chapman. “In most cases, had producers waited for the crop to show these signs, harvest would have been delayed by up to two weeks and RFV would have been in the 110 range.”

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Chapman says the program is especially important for the competitive dairy hay market. “We want the best feed values being used provincially and within our dairy hay exports.”

The Green Gold program was originally a provincial government program. John McGregor, MFGA extension lead, is the long-time overseer of the Green Gold program for both organizations. McGregor retired in 2010 and the Green Gold program lost some steam. But producers like former MFGA chair Jim Lintott wanted the program to continue and approached McGregor to carry on the program under the MFGA banner. McGregor says Green Gold has kept its main focus consistent.

“When it comes to haying, Mother Nature is the biggest determining factor for good-quality forage. Knowing how quickly your alfalfa quality is dropping or where it is at any given point gives producers the opportunity to look at the weather and decide when to cut.

“As an example, if the forecast calls for rain in three days and a producer is aware that the alfalfa is at 180 and dropping five points per day, they have a choice of either cutting and putting the forage up now at a quality above what they may want or they can wait and take up the forage at a quality that is slightly below what they were targeting.”

Twice-weekly clipping

McGregor says Green Gold was first started in 1994 to determine if Manitoba could adapt a program from Dan Undersander’s “scissor clipping” program in Wisconsin. The connection to the high-quality hay measurements that dairy farmers in Wisconsin were seeking was a strong factor in uptake for producers and government.

“Alfalfa remains a huge portion of a dairy cow’s diet and a cheap source of protein,” says McGregor. “Dairy farmers for the most part are also early adapters both of technology and management practices and most dairy nutritionists promote good-quality alfalfa as part of the diet to maximize production and health of the cow.”

Every May and June, McGregor leads a team of provincial staff and producers that clips samples from selected fields across Manitoba that are taken in the morning, twice each week on Monday and Wednesday or Thursday, and delivered to a central testing laboratory in Winnipeg before 11 a.m. that day. Regional results are emailed twice weekly to more than 500 producers and industry people. Results are also posted on the MFGA website and communicated via farm publications.

Lawrence Knockaert runs a dairy and beef operation near Bruxelles, Man., and serves as the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba representative on the MFGA board. Knockaert uses the Green Gold program to hone in on the best time for his first alfalfa cut.

“The thing I really like is the reports are current and really point out when we should cut our first cut based on the highest feed value,” says Knockaert. “It removes the guessing point for the producer, especially when it comes to varying weather and conditions. We know immediately when we should cut via Green Gold.”

McGregor says there are still opportunities to maximize alfalfa quality here in Manitoba, although he also suspects that prairie dairy producers will continue trends to reduce the amount of alfalfa in their herd diets. He feels sheep producers can really maximize production by feeding high-quality alfalfa to their sheep and that members of the province’s hay marketers association consistently utilize the Manitoba-unique program.

“One of the things that I have observed during my 42 years in ag is that after the introduction of Green Gold to the southeast Manitoba area, there was a steady trend from two cuts of alfalfa per year to getting four cuts of alfalfa per year off many farms,” says McGregor.

“MFGA’s Green Gold program can’t take total credit but it has been the only program across the Prairies that promotes an optimum cutting time for the first cut that is focused on quality rather than quantity. When combined with the outreach that goes with the program, cutting at optimum quality leads to more cuts per year.”

This article was originally published in the 2018 Forage & Grassland Guide

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