Ontario Field Crop Report: 2008 Forage Seasonal Summary

Table of Contents

  1. Forage Summary
  2. Challenges for 2009

Technical information can be obtained at the OMAFRA Field Crops Webpage and Crop Pest Ontario. Referenced OMAFRA Publications include the Agronomy Guide for Field Crops (Publication 811), the Field Crop Protection Guide (Publication 812), Guide to Weed Control (Publication 75), and Ontario Weeds (Publication 505). These can be obtained from your OMAFRA Resource Centre, or by calling 1-800-668-9938.

Forage Summary

Frequent rain events during June, July and much of August resulted in 2008 being an extremely challenging year for Ontario farmers to make quality hay and haylage. Very little dry hay was produced without rain damage or mould until very late in the season. Reduced haylage quality is also common due to advanced maturity resulting from delayed harvest, rain damage and fermentation problems. High yields of poorer quality forage are fairly general across the province, with only small pockets where significant forage was harvested without rain damage. Poor quality hay is plentiful and priced inexpensively, but low inventories of high quality hay made without rain damage command much higher prices. Pasture conditions were excellent.

Alfalfa Winterkill

Despite some concern for alfalfa winterkill, winter survival was very good to excellent in most areas including most of eastern Ontario. Exceptions were reported on some poorly drained fields and fields with extensive heaving. Last year's seedings that were marginal due to lack of moisture in 2007 appeared much improved this year.

New Seedings

Seeding conditions in April and early May of this year resulted in timely planting of most new forage seedings. This resulted in good establishment in areas with good drainage. Where excessive rainfall followed seeding, the success of new forage seedings was less consistent with some fields showing symptoms of Aphanomyces root rot and Phytophthora root rot. With frequent rain and windy conditions keeping sprayers idle, annual broadleaf weed control was a problem in some fields. Summer seedings that were completed during optimum seeding dates appear to have germinated and established successfully.


Alfalfa weevil was reported at threshold levels in the southwest, but was managed by cutting, therefore, requiring very little spraying. Potato leafhopper levels (PLH) were below threshold levels in most parts of the province including the PLH-prone counties bordering Lake Erie. With above average rainfall and very little PLH symptoms, very few acres were sprayed. Increasing numbers of farmers are using PLH resistant alfalfa varieties.

Brown Root Rot and Aphanomyces Root Rot Disease

Brown root rot (BRR) disease of alfalfa caused by a fungal pathogen that thrives at cooler soil temperatures, is a new winterkill risk factor. Survey results suggest that BRR is likely a significant and widespread problem in Ontario. Infection of the roots can be detrimental to over-wintering vigour and promote other diseases, winterkill, stand decline and yield loss.

Aphanomyces root rot (ARR) is another fungus disease that may be causing significant losses in alfalfa production. ARR is a major disease of alfalfa seedlings under wet soil conditions. ARR also affects mature plants and can dramatically reduce yield and vigour of established stands. Alfalfa roots are stunted with reduced secondary roots, root hairs and nodules. Many new seedings showed visual symptoms of seedling ARR. However, symptoms in established stands were not as evident in 2008 as they were in the much drier 2007 season when damaged roots limited re-growth. Race 1 and 2 ARR resistant varieties are commercially available.

First Cut Yields and Quality

Alfalfa broke dormancy in late March to early April depending on location. There was a lag in temperatures with cool nights in early April followed by a gradual increase into May. The result was a delay in the maturity of alfalfa and slightly higher proportion of grass than normal in mixed alfalfa-grass stands.

Optimum harvest dates of first-cut "dairy quality" alfalfa haylage typically occurred about the fourth week of May for much of southern Ontario. Beginning May 30, frequent rains delayed a timely first-cut haylage harvest, resulting in lower quality analysis than the benchmark 20% CP - 30%, ADF - 40% NDF targets. Dairy producers relied as much as possible on storing their forage as haylage and plastic-wrap baleage. Even so, harvest weather windows were extremely narrow and forage windrows often received rain resulting in extended wilting periods. Rainfall leached soluble sugars, reducing digestible energy and protein. Some damaged forage was blown back on the fields.

High harvest moistures and extended wilting resulted in some fermentation problems. In some situations, high amounts of butyric acid are reducing feed intakes. In situations where this is suspected, a fermentation profile analysis can be used as a diagnostic and ration balancing tool. Laboratory analysis indicates lower digestible energy and protein, which will likely result in lower milk per cow and higher feed costs. Reduced forage quality may make it more challenging for dairy producers to maintain production this fall.

Weather conditions for making dry hay without rain damage were extremely challenging. In some situations where drainage was very poor, surface water on fields for extended periods prevented the use of forage harvest equipment. Retail demand and use of baleage plastic wrap and propionic acid were significantly increased in many parts of the province.

Second Third and Fourth Cuts

Similar to first-cut, second and third-cut yields were excellent, but drying conditions continued to be challenging. Very little hay was made without rain damage until mid August, when some very high quality forage was harvested. The proportion of grass to alfalfa was much higher than normal. With suitable drying conditions and the need for high quality forage, considerable forage was harvested during the Critical Fall Harvest Period. Hopefully with good growth throughout the year, this will turn out to be an acceptable risk.

Hay Inventories

Hay inventories carried over in the spring of 2008 were lower than normal across much of the province because of reduced 2007 yields. Yields in 2008 were generally above average, but much of the first and second-cuts were rain damaged. There was a fair amount of hay made during late August and September that was made without rain damage. Overall, inventories of poorer quality weathered hay are above average. Inventories of early-cut, high nutrient and "horse quality" hay made without rain damage are very low and difficult to source and purchase. Domestic horse owners are very concerned over the lack of suitable quality horse hay.

With a shortage of hay in many eastern US states, export demand for Ontario horse hay is strong. However, tight supplies of quality hay are making it difficult for hay exporters to fill the market. Also, with higher transportation costs and the increased value of the Canadian dollar, hay exporters are finding this market to be increasingly competitive.

In 2008, the Forage Rainfall Crop Insurance Plan paid $64,000 on 34 claims mostly in extreme southwest areas of the province, particularly Dunwich. This compares to $5.9 million paid in 2007 and $2.2 million in 2006.


With above average rainfall, pasture conditions were excellent in most areas. Both the "spring flush" and "summer slump" of pasture production were less pronounced. Few pastures required supplementation with stored feed.

When cattle were turned out according to the calendar rather than the development of the pasture, some damage occurred. Many pastures had been severely injured by continuous over-grazing in 2007, in situations where livestock inventories exceeded forage supplies.

An increased adoption of rotational grazing practices has resulted in increased forage productivity. Increased sales of portable and temporary fence components have been reported by the fence supply industry. These management tools allow the producer to increase forage utilization and provide rest periods for forage re-growth to occur.

Critical Fall Harvest Period

With rain damaged first and second-cuts and a lack of quality forage, considerable acreage was harvested during the Critical Fall Harvest Period. This may increase the risk of alfalfa winterkill. These fields should be closely monitored in the spring to determine if remedial action is required.

Corn Silage

Corn silage yield and quality were generally good. Corn silage harvest was delayed in most areas by about ten days to two weeks. While some corn silage in the southwest was harvested at moisture that was too dry, considerable corn silage in the north was frost damaged. In some situations the lack of storage for corn silage was an issue because of the increased proportion of forage being made into haylage rather than dry hay. Storage in piles or bag silos provides a good late season forage option for dairy and beef operations requiring additional forage inventories.

Challenges for 2009

Harvest Management for Quality Dry Hay

Frequent rains and narrow haying windows result in reduced amounts of quality dry hay without rain damage or mould. Predicting the weather can be frustrating, but proper conditioner maintenance and adjustment, curing in wide swaths, strategic windrow management and raking, the use of propionic acid as a hay preservative, or switching from dry hay to a haylage or baleage system can assist producers in reducing the risk of poor hay quality. Please refer to "Cutting, Conditioning & Raking For Faster Hay Drying" and "Preventing Mouldy Hay Using Propionic Acid".

New Alfalfa Diseases

Brown root rot (BRR) and Aphanomyces root rot (ARR) are diseases that can have a significant negative impact on alfalfa stands in Ontario. Preliminary results of a BRR survey from Woodstock to eastern Ontario indicate that it is a common and widespread problem. This is a difficult disease to manage, but resistant varieties are being developed. Although many fields show symptom of ARR, surveying in Ontario for Race 1 and 2 of this disease is needed. ARR resistant varieties are available. For more information, please refer to "Aphanomyces Root Rot In Alfalfa" and "Brown Root Rot of Alfalfa in Ontario".

Potato Leafhopper

Potato leafhopper (PLH) levels are often high in some parts of the province (such as the Lake Erie counties) resulting in significant loss of yield and quality and seeding failures. New alfalfa seedings are particularly vulnerable. Potato leafhopper damage in alfalfa is frequently underestimated. More scouting needs to occur with insecticide application when thresholds are exceeded. PLH resistant varieties should be considered in areas where PLH levels are typically high. Please refer to "Forage Insects and Pests".

Rotational Grazing

Changing from a continuous grazing to rotational grazing system by subdividing fields and frequently moving livestock can significantly increase production. A rotational grazing system can double the forage production over a continuous grazing system and reduce the amount of hay fed during the summer slump. Rotational grazing with 10 or 12 paddocks, 2-5 days grazing, and 28-40 days of rest is ideal. Even a less intensive 4-6 paddock system with 5-10 days grazing with a 30 day or longer rest and recovery time, will increase production over continuous grazing.

Strategies to Ensure Adequate Forage Inventories During Dry Weather

Dry weather impacts pasture and forage yields and reduces forage inventories. Farmers must develop management strategies in the event of dry weather that include rotational grazing, the use of drought resistant forage species, alfalfa disease management, and the use of annual forages including corn silage. For more information, refer to OMAFRA article "Managing Forages in Dry Years". The Forage Rainfall Crop Insurance Plan is available to forage producers to help manage the risk of dry weather.

Managing Alfalfa Winterkill

Alfalfa winterkill continues to be a serious issue in some parts of the province, particularly in eastern Ontario. There are many contributing risk factors including: weather, soil type, drainage, a multiple disease complex, potato leafhopper damage, variety selection, fertility, and cutting management. Options to reduce winterkill involve lowering plant stress. These include: improved drainage and soil structure, controlling insect pressure, ensuring adequate fertility, selection of varieties that are winter hardy and highly disease resistant, avoiding very short cutting intervals, and respecting the Critical Fall Harvest Period. Please refer to Factsheet 91-072, "Risk Of Alfalfa Winterkill".


For more information:
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E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca