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Alternative Forages to Consider this Spring

BROOKINGS, S.D. – With the excessively wet planting conditions across much of South Dakota, many producers are looking for other options to meet forage needs for their livestock, or commodities that can be marketed to livestock producers.

“Even for producers who may not own livestock, a forage crop can still hold economic potential. Harvesting forage or leasing grazing acres to neighbors who own livestock provides a way to create revenue on fields that may have otherwise been fallow or weedy this year.”

— Sara Bauder, SDSU Extension Agronomy Field Specialist

Several factors should be considered before committing to a forage crop, added Ruth Beck, SDSU Extension Agronomy Field Specialists.

“Pay special attention to prior crop history as some herbicides can affect subsequent crops. Producers need to make certain that this year’s alternative crop is compatible with last year’s production practices,” Beck said.

Another important factor is soil fertility. “Be cautious with applying high levels of nitrogen fertilizer to a planned forage crop. Oats and other cereal crops, along with many of the warm season grasses like corn, forage sorghum, sorghum-sudan and sudangrass all have potential to accumulate nitrates,” Beck said.

She explained that high levels of soil nitrogen can lead to excessive nitrate accumulation in the forage under some growing conditions.

Finally, make certain to consult crop insurance regulations surrounding prevent plant coverage, yield history, and harvest or use of emergency forage crops.

“As tight as margins are this year, the impact of every decision on the entire farm business needs to be evaluated,” Bauder said.

Alternative forage options to consider

Cover Crop Mixtures:

Cover crop mixes offer a unique opportunity to diversify risk from environmental conditions, explained Beck. “Combinations of different species can increase quality and yield of a forage crop, and offer greater potential for use for grazing, hay or silage,” she said.

To learn more about the right cover crops for your growing conditions and goals, see the resources website or contact SDSU Extension or your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office.

Hay Millets:

As the name implies, these crops are best suited to be harvested as hay rather than grazed or cut for silage. “These plants have fine stems and, with the exception of teff grass, cures the easiest compared to other summer annuals. Hay millet can produce forage in as little as eight weeks after planting,” said Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension Beef Feedlot Management Associate.

Pearl Millet:

Pearl millet offers more production potential than hay millets. Rusche explained pearl millet has the ability to re-grow, making it a better option for grazing or for multiple cuttings at any growth stage.

Pearl millet has coarser stems than hay millet, making curing for baled hay more challenging. Unlike sudangrass, sorghum-sudangrass and forage sorghum, pearl millet doesn’t accumulate prussic acid, which means that cattle would not have to be temporarily removed due to an early frost.

Sudangrass and Sorghum-Sudangrass Hybrids:

Because of the thicker stems for these crops, they are much better suited to be harvested as silage compared to hay.

“These also work well as supplemental summer grazing,” Rusche said. “Prussic acid can be a concern when grazed. However, the greatest risk for prussic acid poisoning occurs under drought conditions, when plants are damaged by frost, or when livestock graze short regrowth.”

To minimize risk, defer grazing until sudangrass is 18 to 20 inches tall and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids reach 24 to 30 inches.

Remove livestock for five to six days if these plants are damaged by a killing frost so that the plants can dry out and the prussic acid can dissipate.

Forage Sorghum:

This crop is the latest maturing and has the most production potential. Forage sorghum is best suited for silage production.

Prussic acid can also be a concern in forage sorghum under similar conditions as sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids.

Other Storable Forages:

Other popular forage options include oat/pea mixture or other grass/legume mixes. The legumes in such mixes provides protein to the mix at first cutting, but can also add to seed cost and should be weighed against the cost of other protein supplements. Several other additional combinations of storable forages are available, but producers should take cost: benefit ratios into account before making decisions.

Additional Information:

In order to serve a dual purpose of improving and protecting soil health, while providing high quality livestock feed, Bauder suggest the take-half-leave-half approach in which livestock are allowed to graze approximately 50 percent of the above ground plant matter before being moved to the next paddock or pasture.

“This allows the trampled or ungrazed portions of the field to provide cover, nutrient cycling, and carbon for the field,” she said.

Producers seeking additional grazing opportunities or those who seek producers with cattle to graze their acres should visit the new South Dakota Grazing Exchange website. This website offers tools to connect livestock producers with forages. Grazing and feeding restrictions from any previous herbicide applications should be considered before planting a cover crop for grazing.