By Tom Collins
As much as 80 per cent of alfalfa hay from Toronto to the Quebec border might have been lost to winterkill but farmers say there won’t be a feed shortage because there is enough alternative feed.
John Verberg at Athens, north of Brockville, knew earlier this year that the fields were going to struggle but he never imagined he would lose all 125 acres of forages with alfalfa mix.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” he said. “Some of the fields, there’s just nothing there. They’ve been wiped out.”
Verberg planned to give his dairy cows more corn silage in their diet and was going to replant those alfalfa fields with forage beans. He also has hay left over from last year’s crop.
Robert Sonneveld — who runs Cloverview Farms with his brothers Jeff and Richard at Inverary in South Frontenac — lost about half of his 250 alfalfa acres. He intended on planting corn into about 90 of those acres, and sowing 110 acres of oats, peas and barley to get extra milk forage in the silos. Normally the brothers plant about 50-60 acres of alfalfa each year, but will be planting about 110 acres this year to make up for the lost acres from this year’s winterkill.
“It’s been a bad spring for alfalfa,” he said. “It’s more of a manager’s game this year.”
Alfalfa hay acreage is only tracked every five years in Statistics Canada’s Census of Agriculture. According to the 2016 census, there were 1.12 million acres of alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures in Ontario, broken down into 223,565 acres in Central Ontario (Hastings, Prince Edward County, Northumberland, Peterborough, Kawartha Lakes, Durham, York, Toronto, Muskoka, Haliburton and Parry Sound) and 213,233 acres in Eastern Ontario (Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry, Prescott-Russell, Ottawa, Leeds-Grenville, Lanark, Frontenac, Renfrew and Lennox and Addington).
OMAFRA’s forage and grazier specialist Christine O’Reilly said while there are no final numbers on winterkill damage, she figures 60 to 80 per cent of alfalfa acres from Toronto to the Quebec border were lost. She said several freeze-thaw cycles during the winter led to less snow insulation and suffocated the crop.
OMAFRA says if there are 55 or more stems per square foot, maximum yield would still be 100 per cent. However, at less than 40 stems per square foot the stands are too weak to keep.
Independent agronomist Gilles Quesnel said he’s heard of winterkill in some areas as high as 90 per cent, although Renfrew County seems to have been spared. He said there was no saving those alfalfa fields and was encouraging farmers in May to convert those acres to something else.
“The important thing is to try and do something quickly,” he said. “Patching up fields won’t help this year.”