Most of an alfalfa field is damaged because of winter kill on Marv Prestrud’s farm near Prairie Farm, Wis. Prestrud has already changed his ration for his 500-cow dairy to account for the alfalfa loss.
Most of an alfalfa field is damaged because of winter kill on Marv Prestrud’s farm near Prairie Farm, Wis. Prestrud has already changed his ration for his 500-cow dairy to account for the alfalfa loss. PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON

    PRAIRIE FARM, Wis. – Farmers in western Wisconsin made a grim discovery as they evaluated their alfalfa fields this spring. Many are left with nothing as their stands succumbed to winter kill following an unusual winter season.
    Now, they hurriedly make plans to salvage what is left and ensure quality forages are available in the rations.
    “We checked the fields as early as we could and knew a lot of the alfalfa was gone,” Marv Prestrud said. “There were a lot of fields we thought would be OK, but then we pulled the roots and they were brown and mushy. The plants won’t live. … We lost all of it.”

    Prestrud and his son, Chad, will have to interseed new alfalfa on their 150 acres in Dunn County near Prairie Farm, Wis. The dairymen will also have to increase the amount of corn silage used in the ration of the 500-cow herd.
    In Dunn County alone, reports are showing up to 75% of alfalfa plants are irrefutably damaged, according to the University of Wisconsin Extension. While a small percentage of the killed or injured plants are due to management of the fields, most is because of weather events beginning in December and lasting until the last snowstorm in April.
    The winter season began mildly with December rains coating relatively uncovered ground. Then, the ground thawed a bit before it rained again in January and was followed by a quick freeze. As winter set in, a blanket of snow and ice was atop of alfalfa fields.    
    “Those stands affected in the first stage of winter were a lot of older stands,” Luke Daninger said. “We’ve walked fields and those without enough stubble that weren’t able to send carbohydrates down to the roots for winter are hurting more than others.”

    Daninger is a senior crop advisor with Ag Partners Cooperative. He works with farmers in southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
    Alfalfa fields were not spared after the deep freeze of January. A spring snowstorm, which arrived about three weeks ago, came after much of the established snowfall melted. Not only were the grounds bare, but temperatures also dropped to 24 degrees Fahrenheit, Daninger said.
    “If fields were stressed from the first force, this second one took a lot of stands out,” he said. “In the last two weeks, fields are dead that were greening up a month ago. In some cases, we’ve gone backwards and plans are changing.”
    Both Minnesota and Wisconsin farmers experienced winter kill, but fields in the Badger State were arguably impacted more because of the lighter soils.
    In the 48 years Prestrud has dairy farmed, this is the biggest loss he has experienced with his forage crop.
    When Prestrud noticed how vast the winter kill damage was, he immediately cut back on haylage in the ration. The Prestruds are going to interseed alfalfa into last year’s new seeding and plan to harvest more corn silage this coming fall.
    “Our hay supply is already really tight,” Prestrud said. “We’re going to increase the corn silage in the ration and by mid-summer hopefully have a new crop of alfalfa on hand from the interseeding.”
    The Prestruds considered planting Italian ryegrass, oats or peas, but realized those commodities will be in tight supply given the conditions other farmers are also working through. By purchasing more protein and supplementing corn silage for energy, the Prestruds will manage without much alfalfa crop.
    For Jeremy Anderson, planting no-till Italian ryegrass is the solution for his 50 acres damaged from winterkill.
    Anderson and his family – dad, Dennis; wife, Dulcie; and daughters, Roslind, 18, and Riley, 17 – milk 180 cows and run about 250 acres of alfalfa near Hager City, Wis.
     “Last year, we fertilized good and took fourth cutting early, and had plenty of regrowth,” Anderson said. “The only fields that were pretty bad were in their fourth year and we were already debating if we should keep them. We have some of the better looking hay … 3 miles north of here there’s no hay. It’s all dead.”
    If time allows this planting season, Anderson would like to reseed alfalfa and plant barley as a cover crop to harvest at the boot stage for a feed supplement.
    The family has 220 bales of haylage remaining and recently purchased 10 large square bales of grass hay that will be used for heifers.
    “Our feed inventory is good, and we have a little extra because we don’t have as many cows as we had last year,” Anderson said.
    This is the second time Anderson can remember going through a detrimental bout of winter kill. However, in 2013, his fields fared worse with only 20 acres surviving.
    “We lost everything,” Anderson said. “We had to buy hay, and planted and fed oats and barley, but we did get milk out of the cows.”
    As Anderson and Prestrud go ahead with a plan B on their alfalfa fields, they are already looking forward to better times.
    “I dread this time of year,” Anderson said. “We try to plan and it can be tough. We just hope we get the best alfalfa we can every year.”
    Prestrud agreed.
    “It will be hard to recapture the loss this year, but if we get a good stand established we’ll be fine,” he said.  
    There are many options to consider when farmers decide what the best course of action may be for their alfalfa stands. Triticale and Italian ryegrass mixes are often used as emergency forages, as well as sorghum-sudangrass. If forage inventory is aplenty, farmers may want to consider seeding down new crop or flip the field entirely.
    “Some options are cheaper up front, but then more costly in the long run, and vice-versa,” Daninger said. “It’s important to work through the scenarios with your nutritionist and agronomist. Every farm is different and we need to make a plan tailored to the farm.”