OMAFRA crop specialists
2018/2019 fall and winter conditions
Environment Canada stations recorded higher than average rainfall in August and the resulting forage growth prompted many harvests during the fall rest period to increase feed inventories. Southwestern, central, and eastern Ontario experienced several thaws between January and March. These reduced or eliminated snow cover and were often followed by cold snaps that caused ice sheeting and heaving in fields. Northeastern Ontario had more snow that usual. Demand for hay and straw was high across the province due to the long, wet winter.
The percentage of hay fields affected by winterkill ranged from about 50% in the southwest to over 80% in the east. Large volumes of melting snow coupled with a wet spring resulting in low-lying areas of hay fields drowning in the northeast. Northwestern Ontario reported normal levels of winterkill.
Hay and Haylage
Cool, wet early spring weather prevented timely planting or patching to address winterkill. Growers with free-draining fields who managed to patch early with Italian ryegrass had good first cut yields. The overcast weather in May and June meant grasses were not able to photosynthesize enough sugar for rapid growth, so first cut in many fields was mature and low-yielding.
First cut began two weeks later than normal in the southwest, and three weeks later than normal in Central and Eastern Ontario; dairy farmers in these regions target the Victoria Day weekend to start cutting. Regular rain events delayed or interrupted harvests. Yields were average or below average. In Northern Ontario, first cut began about a week later than normal. Yield reports were variable.
Reports from the southwest in June indicated high alfalfa weevil pressure. Insect pressure was high in July across the province. Potato leafhopper was found above threshold in Central and Eastern Ontario. Armyworm pressure occurred in pastures and hay fields across Northern Ontario.
For second and subsequent cuts, yield reports reflected rainfall patterns. Southwestern Ontario generally had regular precipitation and good yields. Central, Eastern, and Northeastern Ontario were drier than average, and yields were below-average. Northwestern Ontario received above-average rainfall, making harvest a challenge.
Province-scale discussions of hay quality are difficult, because the type of livestock being fed determines whether forage quality is adequate. To gain a general picture of forage quality this year, alfalfa samples received by Ontario laboratories were graded using the USDA’s Hay Quality Designations. Supreme and premium grades are considered dairy quality. Table 1 summarizes the percentage of samples in each grade.
The long 2018/19 winter strained forage inventories and forced many producers to put livestock on pasture earlier than normal. Cool, overcast spring conditions meant grass growth was slow, and some pastures were hard-pressed to carry livestock until the delayed first cut of hay came off.
Below-average July and August rainfall in Central, Eastern, and Northeastern Ontario lengthened the summer slump and producers in those regions fed more hay to compensate. Heavy rains in August and September in Northwestern Ontario led to pugging damage in some pastures and resulted in feeding cattle hay a month earlier.
Annual Forage Crops
In response to widespread alfalfa winterkill, annual forage acres were up for 2019. Spring cereals and sorghum-sudangrass were popular, but seed supplies were tight.
Silage corn decisions were influenced by planting delays. Some growers switched hybrids to compensate for a shorter growing season. Research from Wisconsin shows the switch date for silage is about a week later than for grain corn. Other acres changed from silage corn to sorghum-sudangrass. An open fall helped corn reach the target half- to three-quarters milk line, but the late planting delayed harvest into October in many areas. Frost may have affected drying rate and moisture content at harvest.
Above-average precipitation in April, May and June resulted in the largest payout to date for the excess rainfall option under the Forage Rainfall Plan ($3.83 million). Approximately $900,000 has been paid out under the insufficient rainfall option. In some regions, producers saw extremely dry conditions in late July and into August. In many cases, this was offset by the above-average rainfall received in May and June.