Nontraditional Forages Provide Summer Alternatives

7/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

LANDISVILLE, Pa. — Livestock owners are expanding the types of forage crops they grow, using species native to Africa and other continents to provide higher quality feed for their animals.

Tracy Neff of King’s AgriSeeds discussed nontraditional forages during the Farming for Success field day June 27 at the Penn State Southeast Research and Extension Center.

Grain sorghum was long considered only an emergency summer forage crop, Neff said, because it is drought-tolerant, using half the water required by corn, but it was not very digestible for cattle. Digestive problems reduced milk output.

Newer varieties of sorghum retain their water-sipping trait but have a reduced content of hard-to-stomach lignin. These sorghums can be identified by a brown midrib, or central vein, on their leaves. Sorghum grows fast, up to 2 to 3 inches per day, Neff said.

Sudangrass is primarily used for baling, he said. If the grass has four days to dry, it can be used as dry hay. Sudangrass dries faster than sorghum because Sudangrass has a thinner leaf and stalk.

Sudangrass handles wheel traffic well. It also regrows faster after the first cutting, which Neff said is unusual.

The downside to Sudangrass is that a farmer must “spoon-feed” it fertilizer, Neff said. The grass requires 30-40 units of nitrogen after every cutting. If a farmer spreads 80 or so units of nitrogen at the beginning of the season, which will suffice for many other grasses, Sudangrass will absorb too much nitrogen.

“High-nitrate feed is bad for cattle,” Neff said.

Neff also showed field day participants a row of forage sorghum, which can grow up to 15 feet tall and produce higher yields than grain sorghum. Like grain sorghum, the forage variety does not need a lot of water to survive.

Deer also will not bother forage sorghum, because the plant lacks the large, tantalizing heads of other grains.

Forage sorghum is usually cut once when the grain is nearly mature, Neff said. He recommends chopping it like corn silage, for which forage sorghum is a cheaper alternative.

One cutting of forage sorghum spread at 20-25 pounds per acre can equal 2 cuttings of sorghum-Sudan hybrids.

“The yield of forage sorghum can equal corn in a good year and surpass it in a bad year,” Neff said.

Forage sorghum cannot wholly replace corn silage, however, because it contains only 20 percent of the starch found in corn. Starch, Neff said, is another necessity for milk production.

Neff recommended using a corn planter set for sorghum to spread forage sorghum. Other types of seeders might produce clumps, he said.

If farmers have problems with their forage crops being blown down by the wind, Neff suggested planting dwarf varieties of sorghum. Despite their name, these types of grain and forage sorghum can still grow tall.

Neff said the dwarf name comes from the nodes, where the leaves meet the stem, being closer together.

Among nonsorghum forages, Neff praised brassica for weed control and being a soluble, high-protein feed. Too much brassica can gives cattle loose bowels, however, and Neff recommended allowing livestock on plantings of this grazing crop incrementally, rather than all at once. Mixing brassica with millet and sorghum can reduce the digestive issues, he said.

The Ethiopian grain teff is a trendy forage for horse hay, and about three members of the tour group said they had tried growing it. One had even managed to get the crop established. Neff was impressed.

Planting teff is difficult because the seeds are tiny, the size of table salt crystals, he said. An acre requires a minuscule 5 pounds of teff seed, compared with 100 pounds or more for an acre of corn.

“Teff is also susceptible to depth,” Neff said, as if the East African staple were not finicky enough without having to be planted in very shallow, firm soil.

Sunhemp is a summer annual legume native to South Africa. It is commonly used for grazing, but it should not be allowed to grow past 6 feet high, Neff said, because “it gets stemmy and woody,” difficult for livestock to eat.

This crop is valuable because it fixes nitrogen, but it needs inoculation, Neff said.

While many of the nontraditional forage varieties planted at the Landisville research center come from Africa, a few were from other continents.

Cowpeas are found around the world and are more popular in the Carolinas and Georgia than they are in the Mid-Atlantic, Neff said, but they can be useful for baling.

Daikon radishes, which are originally from Asia, are an end-of-summer forage crop. Neff recommended planting them by the end of August to allow time for the large taproots, where most of the nutrients are, to develop.

“If your corn isn’t going to come off until November 10, then maybe this isn’t the crop for you,” Neff said.

When trying any new forage crop, Neff suggested growing it in small areas first. That leaves time to figure out how the crop will fare in one’s fields and to learn how to manage the plants before making a larger investment in the crop.

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