Harvesting soybeans for forage

Some producers may want to harvest soybeans for forage this year. Here is essential information for producing high quality soybean forage.

Soybean field
Photo by Mike Staton, MSU Extension.

Some producers may be considering harvesting soybeans for forage this year on their prevented planting acres that were planted as a cover crop. Soybean were originally used as a forage crop in the U.S. and if harvested and handled properly, it produces high quality forage.

Value of soybean forage

The feed value of properly harvested and handled soybean forage can be approximately equivalent to alfalfa. As with any other forage, submitting a representative sample to a qualified laboratory for feed quality analysis is the best way to understand the feed value.  

Impacts on crop insurance

The key message here is communicate closely with your crop insurance agent before harvesting a field for forage that was originally intended for grain production or as a delayed planting cover crop. Failure to communicate with your agent prior to harvest may result in misunderstandings that results in a loss of indemnity payments.

USDA program eligibility

Contact your local U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency office to determine how harvesting a field for forage that was originally intended for grain production will affect USDA program eligibility.

Pesticide feeding restrictions

Producers must check the labels of all the pesticides (including seed treatments) that were applied to the soybean crop to ensure that harvesting for forage is an option and to learn the pre-harvest interval for each product.

Harvesting for hay

Harvesting soybean forage for silage is preferred over baling as dry hay as more dry matter is retained during harvest and storage. However, it is possible to make high quality hay from soybeans in the R3 to R5 growth stages. There are many leaves at these stages and the pods are less likely to shatter during mowing and raking operations.

Use a roller-type mower conditioner set to lay the hay in a wide swath and leave about 4 inches of stubble. When dry, slowly and gently rake the swath into a windrow in the morning when humidity levels are higher to avoid leaf loss. Invert the windrows after several hours of good drying conditions and bale in the early evening to avoid further leaf loss.

Harvesting for silage

The crop can be harvested from R3 to R6. Soybeans harvested at R3 to R5 will produce high quality forage and have lower oil content than those harvested at R6. The higher oil content may cause fermentation problems. However, soybeans harvested at R6 will produce more dry matter.

Mow the crop with a mower conditioner equipped with roller crimpers. Experience from Wisconsin indicated that flail conditioners cause more damage and dry matter loss than roller conditioners. As with alfalfa, soybean should be allowed to wilt in the field to 65% moisture before chopping. Determining the whole plant moisture content is critical to achieving proper fermentation.

Collect representative samples from the chopper and use the microwave method to determine whole plant moisture levels before chopping each field. Adjust the chopper to produce a 3/8-inch cut to improve packing.

Feeding soybean hay

Soybean hay tends to cause bloat in cattle, so it should be fed carefully. Mix the soybean hay with grass hay or fill the cattle up on grass hay prior to feeding soybean hay. Horses can safely consume soybean hay if it is baled and stored properly. 

Feeding soybean silage

Feed quality of soybean silage is equivalent to alfalfa haylage. Soybean silage is less palatable than haylage or corn silage. However, it can make up 15 to 20% of a dairy ration without impeding animal intake or milk production. The exception is when the soybeans are harvested after the R6 stage as more seed (higher oil content) is present which can reduce both fermentation and palatability.

When harvested and handled properly, soybeans can produce excellent forage.




  • D. Undersander, K. Jarek, T. Anderson, N. Schneider and L. Milligan. “A Guide to Making Soybean Silage”, Plant Management Network, 2007.
  • S. Johnson, J. Dunphy and M. Poore. “Soybeans as Forage for Grazing, Hay or Silage”, North Carolina State University,
  • S. Barnhart and A. Lenssen. “Alternatives for Drought-Damaged Soybeans- Bean Crop of Forage”, Iowa State University, Integrated Crop Management News, 2012.

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