Forage alternatives for livestock in drought years

Offering solutions to help stretch limited forage supplies and budgets when the weather isn’t cooperating.

Cover crops planted after wheat harvest, such as this brassica mixture, can provide extra forage for cattle and sheep during the off season for row crops.
Cover crops planted after wheat harvest, such as this brassica mixture, can provide extra forage for cattle and sheep during the off season for row crops. Photo credit: Kim Cassida.

As livestock producers harvest and store forage resources for 2021-22, we may see significant risk with drought conditions reducing yields. This combined with elevated grain prices may create the perfect storm for significantly higher feed costs for livestock producers across large portions of the country.

This article is designed to help livestock producers better understand the potential problems ahead and offer some feasible solutions to help stretch limited forage supplies and budgets. For producers that rely heavily on hay or haylage for winter feed, Michigan State University Extension offers some alternatives that can help stretch limited forage supplies.

Extend the Grazing Season

It is difficult to understate the impact that managed grazing can have on the length of the grazing season. Managing animal movement so that plants have a chance to recover from grazing is always important but never more so than when weather is not cooperating. Harvesting forage with livestock is also less costly than harvesting it with machines.

Alternative Forages

Perennial forages are the backbone of many livestock operations but many perennials go dormant as a survival strategy during drought. Annual forages offer a solid alternative in drought emergencies because many can produce harvestable forage within eight weeks after planting given a minimal amount of water.

Keep in mind that it is rarely wise to terminate a perennial forage stand in order to plant annual forages, unless the field was already scheduled for renovation due to poor performance. In that case, annuals are a useful step in a forage rotation regardless of weather. In summer, look at forage species that thrive in warm, dry conditions such as forage sorghum, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, teff, pearl millet, or foxtail millet. These crops can provide emergency forage in about eight weeks and can be grazed, baled, or chopped.

In spring or fall, consider small grains or brassicas. Oats planted in late July or early August after wheat harvest can produce harvestable forage in as little as six weeks, and adding field peas boosts protein content. Brassicas (turnip, radish, forage rape) planted in late July to early August can be ready to graze in eight weeks and their excellent cold tolerance means you may still be grazing them in December. Triticale or rye planted in September after corn silage will not provide any fall forage but can provide a spring pasture or haylage crop 2-3 weeks earlier than perennial forages and are removed in time to double-crop with silage corn.

Many livestock producers do not have cropland for growing annuals, but the diverse nature of Michigan agriculture means it is likely that some neighbors do. A leasing arrangement to grow annual forages on cropland in the off season can be beneficial to both parties, provided crop insurance requirements are met. There is an excellent window of opportunity to grow annual forages after wheat and corn silage harvests in Michigan, as described above. Also, many row crop growers are planting cover crops, and these are often the same species that make good annual forage. Depending on the particular cover crop/mixture and time of year, cover crops can be grazed, baled, or chopped. It is important to be aware of possible forage use restrictions related to previous pesticide use on the field that may make it illegal to feed the cover crop to livestock.

Crop Residue/Stover

Another key area to consider is crop residues. Many producers see crop residue as a challenge to get tilled-in and broken down before planting the next crop. Livestock producers should see crop residues and potential feed sources and consider including them in their annual feed inventories. Corn stover is often available on neighboring land and could benefit both parties if a portion of the residue is harvested and removed. Corn stover can vary greatly in feed value based on the portion of the plant harvested. Focusing on harvesting the upper 2/3 of the plant including husk, silk, cob, and leaves increases both feed value and palatability. Leaving the lower portion of the stalk in the field should be your goal. Processing (shredding or chopping) the harvested portion also increases feed quality and palatability.

Soybean residue can also be considered but feed refusal will increase if this feedstuff is fed dry or too much high-quality feed is available free choice. Soybean residue can be harvested by round baling the windrows left by the combine. However, this dry stover has challenges with lower relative feed value and lower palatability. Harvesting any crop residue at higher moisture and wrapping or ensiling can significantly increase palatability. With any residue source, harvesting equipment and method can drastically influence forage quality and subsequent feed values. Adequate dry matter intake will be dependent on rations balanced for protein.

Resources to harvest, store and feed can be viewed within each of the following links:

Other crop residues like wheat or oat straw can be utilized as feedstuff in limited quantities. However, straw has higher opportunity cost in the marketplace and may not be feasible to feed. As when grazing cover crops, be sure crop residues have not been treated with a pesticide that is illegal for feeding to animals.

Testing Forages for Ration Calculations

The nutritional value of crop residues and harvested cover crops is highly variable. Therefore, forage testing is critically important to determine actual nutrient concentration so that diets can be balanced to meet specific animal production needs. Look for a forage testing lab that is certified by NFTA (National Forage Testing Association). Two NFTA forage testing labs have locations in Michigan: Dairyland Labs in Battle Creek (269-753-0048) and Alliance Analytical Labs in Grand Rapids (616-837-7670). There are also many other good forage testing labs outside of Michigan. Contact your chosen lab directly for details on how samples should be prepared and shipped. See Sampling hay, silage, and total mixed rations for analysis for general instructions on how to collect a forage sample.

Pricing Crop Residue

Crop residues are generally priced based on nutrient and organic matter removal values. Crop residue values are generally lower in energy and/or protein compared to average hay values/dry ton. Nutrient values for energy and protein will need to be calculated compared to viable alternatives in your feeding system. With hay and related forage inventories at lower levels and reduced first cutting yields, winter supplies are projected lower than normal. If drought persists, we can expect this problem to negatively influence forage supplies and elevate cost. Corn or soybean residues are likely the most available and abundant in most areas of the country. Pricing can be easily calculated by utilizing this link.

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