Crop Profile for Perennial Forage in Alaska
Prepared: November 2000
Revised: December 2002
General Production Information
Producing quality forage profitably in Alaska demands exceptional management skills, biological knowledge and practical experience. Growing conditions in the subarctic environment are challenging at best. The effects of the 100 – 118 day frost-free growing season and long photo period (18+ hours of daylight in June) is offset by the relatively low spring precipitation (0.9–1.7 inches for April and May), cool summer temperatures (July averages range from 510–610F for the different production regions), cool-damp autumns (average September temperatures of 440–470F with 1.3–3.3 inches of precipitation) and cold winter temperatures (average January temperatures of –20 to 140F). Average yields of perennial forages range from 0.8–1.3 tons/acre with the better-managed farms often exceeding 2 tons/acre/year. Alaska forage crop production has averaged over 20,750 tons/year for the previous 8 years, with an average total value of $3,986,250 from over 20,050 harvested acres (Benz and Roos, 2001). In 2002, Alaskan hay sold for $200-720 per ton compared to $87 per ton in other states.
Perennial forages are produced in many areas of Alaska. The majority of the forage however, is produced in three regions: the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (2) of South Central Alaska (61N 149W), the Tanana Valley (1) of Interior Alaska (63N 145W), and the Kenai Peninsula (3) of Alaska (60N 151W). Both the South Central and Kenai Peninsula are near sea level in elevation and influenced by a maritime climate. The Interior region is 400–1300 feet in elevation with a continental climate regime. The maritime climate generates more precipitation, with a longer frost-free season, but cooler and moister growing conditions than occurs in the interior of Alaska. High winds that can scour insulating snow from the fields occur in parts of the Interior and South Central regions.
All-weather roads allow forage products to be marketed interchangeably among all three regions. The South Central and Kenai Peninsula regions contain some commercial dairies, beef, sheep and goat producers along with a larger number of recreational livestock (horse, llama, alpaca, etc.) owners. The forage market in the Interior is comprised of more commercial dairies, beef production units, game ranches, and fewer recreational livestock owners.
% Forage Value3
Soils and Fertility: The cultivated agricultural soils of these forage production regions are primarily loess (very fine sandy loam to silt loam) deposited over alluvial materials (sands and gravels). Both the Kenai Peninsula and South Central regions have higher proportions of volcanic ash additions to their soils than does the Interior region. This volcanic ash tends to render phosphorus less available to the crops. South Central and Kenai Peninsula soil pH’s are often below 5.5, while those of the Interior often exceed 5.5 (Reiger, et al. 1979).
Many of the Interior agricultural soils were located in areas of discontinuous permafrost; thus little weathering and soil profile development occurred prior to conversion to agricultural use. Soils in South Central and the Kenai Peninsula are also considered new in geologic terms and as such are relatively infertile.
Commercial forage producers utilize soil tests and University fertilizer guides to determine crop nutritional requirements and their annual supplemental fertilizer application rates (Panciera and Gavlak, 1992). Forage producers targeting yields of 2 tons/acre or more typically apply 120-40-20-10 (lb./acre of actual nitrogen, phosphate, potash and sulfur) in the Interior region (Quarberg, unpublished data). Growers in South Central use rates of 140-60-120 and on the Kenai utilize rates of 80-40-40-32 (lb./acre of actual nitrogen, phosphate, potash and sulfur) (Gavlak and Jahns, unpublished data). All fertilizer materials are applied in the spring with the exception of nitrogen, which is sometimes split if more than one cutting per year is taken. If applications are split, half of the nitrogen is applied in the spring and the second half is applied after the first harvest (Panciera and Gavlak, 1992).
Seeding and Cultivars: ‘Manchar’ and ‘Carlton’ are the two most prevalent cultivars of smooth bromegrass (Bromus inermis) raised for forage production in Alaska (Quarberg, 1994). ‘Engmo’ is the most common timothy (Phleum pratense) cultivar grown. Timothy is considered a single cut or harvest crop, while two cuttings of brome are common. Timothy is more resistant to spoilage and retains a green color better when subjected to rain, during the curing process, than does brome. Other forage grasses utilized include: ‘Nugget’, ‘Merion’ and ‘Park’ Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis); ‘Arctared’ and ‘Boreal’ creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra); common meadow foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis), ‘Garrison’ creeping foxtail (Alopecurus arundinaceus) and reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea) (Klebesadel, 1983). Forage legumes have met with very limited success in Alaska (Panciera and Sparrow, 1994; Klebesadel, 1994), although their use and potential continues to be evaluated (Gavlak and Hall, 2002).
A limited amount of dual-purpose forage is also produced in the Interior and South Central Alaska. Cultivars ‘Tundra’ Glaucus bluegrass (Poa glaucus) and ‘Nugget’ Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) are both raised for their seed as well as their forage potential. These grasses produce commercial yields of seed for 2–3 years while also producing forage crops. This gives producers the option of raising seed, forage or both. Forage quality following seed production is usually lower than if harvested strictly for forage.
Many of the seedings of perennial forage crops are made under a cost-share program with the United States Department of Agriculture – Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service. Certified seed is mandated in some districts and recommended in others. Seeding is usually done in the spring, during May and June, with a planting termination date of mid-July to mid-August, depending upon the region. Seeding implements include grain drills, drop seeders, specific grass seeders and no-till drills. Much of the interior’s perennial grass is seeded with a companion crop of oats. The oats provide a number of benefits. Oats help the grass seed flow through the implement-metering device, plus they aid germination of the grass by reducing wind velocities at the soil surface, thereby reducing evaporation and soil erosion. Oats grow rapidly and serve to reduce weed growth. The oat stubble remaining after the season traps snow, which insulates the new grass from the cold winter temperatures and provides soil moisture the following spring. The oats also provide a forage crop in the planting season and thereby generate a return to the producer. Longevity of intensively managed perennial forage crops is 7 years or more. Some bromegrass and timothy stands have remained productive for 20 or more years.
Irrigation: Interest in irrigation of forage crops is increasing, especially in the Interior region where nearly 10% of the crop receives some additional water during the growing season. The need for supplemental irrigation is less in the South Central and Kenai Peninsula regions. Sprinkler systems including traveling guns, center pivots, wheel and hand lines are all used. Tensiometers, experience and capacities of the systems determine irrigation scheduling.
Even though perennial forages in Alaska are not plagued with many pest problems, the majority of the producers employ some IPM practices. The seeding of a companion oat crop is one example. Bluegrass producers utilize hand roguing in their seed crops as a form of weed control.
Diseases: There are few diseases which are of concern to Alaska forage producers. Rust (Puccinia spp.) and powdery mildew (Erysiphe spp.) are a potential threat for bluegrass producers.
Insects: Occasionally an outbreak of grasshoppers occurs in the interior. The migratory (Melanoplus sanguinipae) and band-winged (Camnula pellucida) grasshoppers are the two most common. No insecticides have been applied on perennial forages to control grasshoppers in more than 6 years. Scouting and late fall or early spring tillage of grasshopper egg laying areas is occasionally used around the perimeter of the crops to destroy egg beds. Capsus bugs (Capsus simulans) can destroy many developing seedheads of bluegrass. This creates a condition know as “silvertop” in which the emerging seedheads die and turn silver in color. Insect damage appears to be on the rise from the smooth bromegrass monoculture that is steadily building in Interior Alaska. This practice may require future insecticide usage, unless cropping diversification is adopted.
Weeds: Weed competition is most severe in the forage crop establishment year. Growers not seeding a companion crop will often clip the weeds or use a herbicide after the weeds have emerged but prior to emergence of the grass. Dry springs and droughty summer conditions allow dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) to invade the perennial forage crop. Field scouting, spot spraying and some field spraying for dandelions and hawksbeard (Crepis spp.) have been done. Infestations of foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) and perennial sowthistle (Sonchus arvensis) have occurred in the Interior. The incidence of hempnettle (Galeopsis tetrahit), Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) and orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum) is increasing on the Kenai Peninsula. Field scouting, hand clipping and/or spot spraying are used to control most of these noxious and/or invasive weeds. The majority of the producers strive to control weeds by maintaining a healthy and vigorous stand of perennial forage.
<5% of growers
Curtail (2,4-D + clopyralid)
5% of growers
1-2 lbs. (2,4-D);0.19-0.38 lbs. (Clopyralid)
8-64 fl. oz.*
<1% of growers
1 pt.-5 qts.
<5% of growers
*Rates above 32 fl. oz. per acre are for spot treatments only
We are currently seeking state registrations for bromoxynil and alternative dicamba products; and the federal registration of pronamide for fallow applications in support of further weed control options.
Other Pests: Migratory waterfowl (primarily geese) feed heavily on the newly established grass in the autumn. Noise-makers and other forms of hazing have very limited effect. Legal hunting is much more successful. Another more formidable pest in the Interior region is a wild, free-ranging herd of bison numbering approximately 500 animals. They too, detrimentally graze the newly established fields of grass. In addition to grazing they also tend to wallow in the fields and destroy small areas of the grass. These areas are then open to weed infestation. Finally, bison dropping may contain viable weed seeds, which serve as a source of contamination. Hazing techniques for bison control are generally ineffective as they simply return after dark.
In a two cutting per year system, the first harvest of forage occurs between mid-June and early July. Second harvest is in mid-August through September. Cool, moist weather and shortening day lengths challenge the second harvest of field-cured forage.
Some growers are experimenting with hay preservatives. Other techniques include plastic bale wrapping which allows harvesting at higher forage moisture levels. On rare occasions hay has been baled under snow and successfully fed to animals while still frozen. In a single cutting per year system, harvest of forage occurs between early July and late August (weather and forage maturity dependent).
Recreational horse owners interpret “green” colored forage as a symbol of quality. To preserve this green color producers are storing more of their product under shelters. These shelters vary from tarps to fully enclosed buildings. Many dairy and beef producers are utilizing round bales, either wrapped in plastic and stored outside or stored unwrapped in structures. In the drier parts of the Interior, some unwrapped storage occurs outside. Statewide there remains excessive hay spoilage, the result of improper storage.
Grading and Marketing
No hay-grading standard has been accepted in Alaska. The consumer sets the standard. Most producers must market their products themselves.
Perennial forage production is a very significant component of Alaskan agriculture. Quality forage has and will remain a challenge to produce economically within the unique climatic conditions of Alaska. With limited University research support, many producers conduct their own research, as well as evaluate and adopt new technology into their production system (mower-conditioners, tedders, windrow-inverters, irrigation systems, bale wrappers, high moisture production and improved marketing and quality control). The Alaskan agricultural industry strives to improve production and marketing efficiencies while also protecting the environmental quality of this land.
Donald M. Quarberg
Professor of Extension – Emeritus
Original Author:UAF - Cooperative Extension Service
Thomas R. Jahns
Alaska Pest Management Program Coordinator, Land Resources
Original Editor, Revision Author: District Agent, UAF-Cooperative Extension Service
This crop profile is written as an overview of the Alaska forage crop industry. Much of the information presented was obtained from unpublished surveys, plus personal and electronic communications. We would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance in developing this forage crop profile: Suzan Benz (USDA Agricultural Statistician – Palmer), Dr. Raymond G. Gavlak (Extension Agronomy Specialist – Palmer), David Mueller (USDA Agricultural Statistician – Palmer), Janice Chumley (Alaska Pest Management Program) for pesticide registration review, Steve DuBois (Area Game Biologist – Delta Junction), Phil Kaspari (Producer and Extension Program Assistant – Delta Junction) and Christy Roden (Extension Secretary – Delta Junction). In addition, appreciation is also extended to the following Delta Junction producers: Bob Green, Scott Miller, Mike and Scott Schultz and Bryce Wrigley for their production information. We also wish to thank Christy Roden for supplying the Donald Quarberg and Phil Kaspari, Delta Junction pictures; Pam Compton for supplying the Palmer pictures and Tom Jahns for supplying the Kenai Peninsula pictures used in this publication.
1 US Ranking: (Benz, 2002)
2 Production and Storage Costs: Estimated from “Doane’s Agricultural Reports – 1999 Machinery Custom Rate Guide.”
3 % Acreage, % Production, % Forage Value: (Benz and Roos, 2001)