Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Salvaging row crops for feed in a drought season

In my travels this year it appears that corn is the most stressed crop.   For the silage based dairy this is distressing, given its current stage of growth and nutrient demand.   In parts of the country (Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota) corn fields appear to be dying—farmers there are cutting it, wilting and baling it to salvage some feed value in an alternative hay form.

If you choose to do this, we still have enough growing season for summer annuals or grass options to yield some fall harvested forage.     (The easiest—plant some forage sorghum—is no longer possible as the national seed supply is already depleted.)  

One is to plant sorghum sudangrass and let it keep growing right up until frost threatens—then either chop it for ensilage or cut it to make baleage.     Sorghum Sudangrass is able to tolerate hot/dry conditions and grows fast as long as you have enough moisture to germinate (so time any planting right after a rainstorm).    It emerges quickly and will do a good job as long as you did not use a lot of atrazine.    Most varieties range from 75 to 90 day maturity, but the ones you can cut every 30-35 days offer great flexibility.    We have BMR-6 varieties.

Another is to wait into August, when we are more certain it will cool down at night, and put in Italian Ryegrass.     Barenbrug’s “Green Spirit” variety is pretty aggressive and still grows into those first days of frost.     It will yield a fall harvest of significant tonnage and then act as a winter cover crop, regrowing in the spring for early harvesting or green nitrogen plowdown.
Note “ryegrass” is never the same as “cereal rye”, it is a cool season high energy grass forage    producing dairy quality feed.   Italian ryegrass varieties act as annuals or biennials depending on whether seeded in the fall or the spring.    Cows love it as pasture, baleage or haylage.

If you do not want the crop to regrow in the spring, consider Forage Oats.   They will give a crop to harvest within sixty days (plant early August—harvest late September).   If you want a spring harvest, consider fall planted Triticale, also a dairy quality feed harvested on time.

A third “wild card” option, especially if you just harvested wheat or did not plant a Round-Up Ready crop in the intended field this spring, is to plant some Master Graze - which is a BMR, soft stalk, high energy and protein, 75-day corn from “Master’s Choice” capable of yielding five to seven tons dry matter as ensilage or baleage—or even direct-grazed.   Master Graze does fine on 1 ½ units of nitrogen per day and is feed quality in sixty days from planting.

As for our alfalfa fields, although harvests so far are only 50% of “normal” yields, they could still produce meaningful late summer and fall cuttings as soon as rain returns.    If feed needs find you taking a late season cutting it is always possible to overseed with high energy grass varieties next spring and maintain or gain yields beyond what you might expect from shorting the root energy storage by that late season cutting.

Drought seasons remind us of the risks of going “monocultural” (having our entire operation dependent on a single crop).    The forage-based cattle operation has flexibility not only from managing its stocking rates in low yield seasons, but from growing a mix of crops capable of capturing moisture when it falls, rather than a total dependence on summer season rainfall.

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