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Weird weather vexes alfalfa farmers

A warm winter followed by frosts has Wisconsin farmers confused about when to harvest alfalfa. It’s the main food source for dairy cows. Here, cows eat a mixture of alfalfa, hay and corn at the Kehoe Dairy in Point Reyes Station, Calif.

Kai Ryssdal: On now to the Marketplace ag report -- agriculture is in the news. Alfalfa, in particular. It's a main food for dairy cows, and it's been growing faster than normal this year. Wisconsin farmers are in a funk about when they should harvest this year to get the best-quality crop, and by extension the best milk production.

Yeah, the warm winter's has been messing with the food chain again. Marketplace's Sally Herships has more.


Sally Herships: Some of us humans are lactose-intolerant. But did it ever occur to you that cows have special dietary needs too? That’s why farmers have to get alfalfa just right.

Joe Speich: Twenty-four to 30 inches is the magic height.

Joe Speich is an agronomist with Landmark Dairy Co-op in Wisconsin. He’s also an alfalfa farmer. He says alfalfa is harvested too early it won’t have enough fiber. It’ll pass right through the cow without the nutrients being absorbed. Now, the weirdly warm weather which made alfalfa start growing early has now returned to normal. Cold. Which is a problem.

SpeichWhen the leaves of the alfalfa freeze and die off, they fall, so there’s nothing really harvested.

Donald Viands teaches plant breeding at Cornell. He says this is the earliest alfalfa season he’s seen in over 30 years. And the plant is having a tough time with the weather.

Donald Viands: It’s freezing it back just at the wrong stage for alfalfa to be able to recover very well.

So farmers are left wondering: Harvest a poor crop early or risk letting it grow in erratic weather?

I’m Sally Herships for Marketplace.

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Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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