Alternative Forage Crops: How Farmers & Growers Adapted to Extreme Weather Events

Though the past few years have seen a number of weather-related challenges for farmers, the 2019 growing and harvest seasons were easily among the most difficult seasons that growers had ever experienced. Several regions had to deal with severe winterkill and an excessively wet fall, while others struggled with below average precipitation and drought. All of this came with little-to-no warning, meaning that the forage growing season and the inventories that followed were heavily compromised. 

However, American farmers and growers are nothing if not determined: in the face of the numerous challenges they experienced throughout 2019, farmers turned to a number of alternative forage species and growing strategies to fill the gap. With highly volatile weather having become a common occurrence, it is clear that selecting alternative forage crops isn’t just a one-off solution during a down period, but a necessity to stay agile and competitive. As such, it is important to take note of how farmers and growers across the country are answering the call and adapting to changing environmental considerations. 

The Challenges of Extreme Weather 

Extremes have come to define the past few years, with 2019 in particular seeing a series of erratic and highly unpredictable weather events that caught many farmers and growers flat footed. Simply put, whether it was hot or cold, wet or dry, the weather hit harder than usual, offering little warning for the damage it was bound to cause. All of this led to serious complications for the planting, growing, and storage of many common crops and forage grasses. 

With the weather staying wet well past the normal planting dates for corn and beans, some growers simply did not have enough healthy plants to produce a full crop. The wet soil resulted in heavy compacting, which in turn led to poor drainage, lost nutrients, and far more weeds than forage. Even if growers did manage to get a decent crop, many also had to suffer through major dry spells, which further hindered crop production and storage. Worst of all, in some areas this has been the norm for years, with Midwest farmers and growers citing heavy rain and unseasonably mild winters as the cause of some of their worst hay yields in nearly a decade

The Search For Viable Alternatives 

In response to the multitude of weather problems that plagued growers throughout 2019, there was a push to find viable alternative crops that could either better endure the inclement weather. Whatever the specifics of their situations, growers needed to get some kind of feed from their acres, which led to a number of “unfamiliar” feeds seeing use. If it could be windrowed and chopped, farmers tried it: small grain silages, ryegrass, sorghum sudangrass, forage peas, soybean silage. The variety was astounding, demonstrating the need to both produce new crops and renovate pastures. 

In many cases, growers needed to find crops that could be planted earlier than corn or soybeans, though even as farmers and producers found new options to fill these gap, new challenges would become apparent. For instance, some growers turned to fast-maturing crops like sunflowers, buckwheat, and cowpeas, unaware that some of herbicides used earlier in the season might be incompatible with their new alternatives. Like any experiments, there will be both successes and failures, so although not all of these alternative crops worked out, on the whole it helped growers stay competitive during an uncertain harvest. 

Lessons For 2020 & Beyond

With three or four ground freeze and thaw episodes already in the late autumn, there are already reasons to be wary of just how much existing alfalfa acreage will survive the winter, especially coming off of the heels of one of the most difficult growing seasons in recent memory. Yet the 2019 season have prepared growers for what is on the horizon, teaching them the importance of fast action and adapting to the sudden changes that mother nature can throw at you. Plus, despite all of the frustration that 2019 brought, many growers made the best of these extreme conditions, with reports suggesting bright spots for hay exports and at least mild improvements to acreage, yield, and production across the board

This is all very impressive given just how middling a growing season it was overall, and it goes to show that this type of experimentation isn’t just something that should be pursued to fill gaps in more traditional practices, but because they can be commercially viable in their own right. Whether by double cropping, using cover crops, breaking up of customary crop rotations, or accommodating manure applications throughout the growing season, there are numerous methods that be leveraged to make the growing process a little more effective, and with so many alternatives to the more traditional crops, there are doubtlessly some options that would work best your growing strategies!