North Central Research Extension Center


| Share

Planning for Forage-April 2004

Farmers are busy finalizing cropping plans for the coming season. Crop prices and outlook, fertilizer and input costs, and previous cropping history and rotational concerns all weigh in on what to grow, on what fields, and what farming practices will be used. For farming cattleman part of the consideration is how many acres, which acres, and what crops can most economically produce forage. A long winter of feeding that has drawn down forage supplies and concerns over drought or reduced production from hay fields puts additional thought into the possibilities this year.

There are many annual planted crops that can be grown and utilized for winter cattle feed including both warm season and cool season grasses and several broadleaf legumes. The potential highest yielding crop in dry matter or nutrients per acre would be corn harvested as silage. Corn for silage however requires row crop planting, high agronomic inputs, and high labor and equipment for silaging. In spite of the high production and harvest costs, it can still be an economical beef cow feed if high yields can be obtained, and low-cost, low-quality roughages can be blended with high energy corn silage to balance cow needs.

Corn for silage on a limited acreage is more feasible if custom harvesters are available, fields are close to home, and it can be precisely fed with equipment as a mixer wagon. While the dry matter yield and energy value are high for corn it is only moderate in protein and when blended with low protein straws or hay crude protein can be short if not supplemented with some higher protein hay or supplements. Corn is also a long season crop which needs to be planted fairly early for optimum production in our short growing season.

In operations where all forage is harvested and fed as hay cereal crops are popular for forage as they are easy to grow with relatively modest input costs. Optimum yields are obtained with good farming practices including weed control, fertility, and planting date. As cool season crops-oats or barley should be planted in early May into clean fields whether by conventional or direct seeding methods. Forage yield responds well to nitrogen fertility, but some caution should be exercised as potentially toxic nitrates can build up in stressed plants grown on high nitrogen fertility. In stress prone areas it is recommended to limit soil plus applied nitrogen to 60 to 70 pounds. Delaying harvest date to the dough stage maximizes tonnage per acre and minimizes curing time in the swath but also results in a lower quality more fibrous forage prone to greater feeding waste if not chopped.

If the cereal hay will be used to supplement low quality forage early in the winter and meet lactating cow requirements latter in the year, an earlier harvest stage is recommended. Protein levels fall off fairly fast from the boot stage to grain filling. The best compromise for oats is at the flowing to early milk stage and for barley at the late milk to soft dough stage when fed to stock cows.

While typical conventional grain varieties are good choices there is a slight yield advantage for varieties selected and marketed as forage types. Forage barley varieties have the shown to be slightly higher in protein, and are beardless eliminating mouth irritation and potential lump jaw infections possible with bearded barley. Oat for hay has a tendency in warm drier areas to out yield barley and from a cropping rotation stand point is a better choice than barley for most operations. Barley however has more herbicide options, and after tests a few percent points higher in digestibility.

Millet, Sudan grass or Sorghum Sudan crosses are warm season grasses that are suited to latter planting, can be planted with small grain drills, are good rotational cropping choices, and have potential for high yields. Optimum planting date is early to late June which fits well into situations where a second cropping alternative is needed for an earlier planted failed crop, the May planting window has passed, and to spread risk to forage crops with some what different seasons when weather and rainfall can be unpredictable and sporadic.

Foxtail millets (German or Siberian) are about 50 day crop to heading and popular as a late season emergency alternatives. They are very small seeded making them affordable to plant(12­-15 lb/acre) however they must be seeded shallow and have good surface moisture for establishment. At harvest they are fairly short and fine stemmed making them easier to cut, cure, and bale as hay than Sudan grass and Sorghum-Sudan hybrids but also yield less per acre. Sudan and Sorghum crosses are larger seeded, easier to establish, and have very high yield potential under warm and moist conditions. They like cereal if stressed can accommodate nitrates, and can grow very tall with large juicy stems, making it difficult to cure for baling. They tend to be longer season crops often harvested at vegetative or early head emergence stages fairly late in the fall. If not too mature at harvest cattle like and readily consume sudan sorghum hays which tends to be fairly high in digestibility but low in crude protein.

Forage species and variety, soil fertility, and stage of harvest impact forage protein levels of grasses which range from a low of about 7 to about 14%. Inclusion of annual legumes as an intercrop can potentially raise protein levels several percentage points and reduce fiber levels and increase relative feed value. The most popular option is to seed a blend of oats and peas and harvest when the peas are in the early flat podding stage. Forage variety soybeans are sometimes planted in combination with warm season grasses. Annual legume crops as peas, lentils, non winter hardy alfalfa, soybeans, hairy vetch, chickling vetch typically produce very high quality forage both in terms of crude protein levels and digestibility, however yields are generally substantially less than annual grasses in our region. In spite of reduced fertilizer inputs associated with legumes which if innoculated will fix most of their nitrogen needs and rotational benefits to following cereal and oil crops, high seeding costs and limited seed availability are drawbacks.

The final decision on the selection and management of annual forage cropping alternatives must not only include cropping rotations and plans but the use of the forage. Is it going to be a major source of winter feed or a supplement to other forage and to what kinds of animals will it be fed and how will it be fed and delivered to them. For further information on yield and quality evaluations on annual forages contact the NDSU Extension Service.

Creative Commons License
Feel free to use and share this content, but please do so under the conditions of our Creative Commons license and our Rules for Use. Thanks.