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How Are Alternative Forage / Cover Crops Doing?

University of Minnesota Extension, Stearns County News
August 20, 2014         
Source:  Dan Martens, Extension Educator
University of Minnesota Extension
Stearns, Benton & Morrison Counties


How Are Alternative Forage / Cover Crops Doing?
By Dan Martens, University of Minnesota Extension

FOLEY, Minn. (08/08/14) — I stopped by the Gregory family’s Mill Creek Dairy, north of Kimball, on August 6 to look at some alternative forage and cover crop plots that I planted there on June 30. I was most interested in watching crops that might produce forage feed. These crops were not much more than out of the ground when we held the Central MN Forage tour there on July 16.

The Gregory’s planted corn in this field on June 23 where alfalfa had been tilled up after a late first cutting on this field. We suggest corn as a good crop to plant even through the first week of July for silage feed. Some corn was planted later than that this year.

I planted plots on the edge of this field that are 6 feet wide by 20 feet long. Looking from bottom to top in the picture, they included tillage radish, berseem clover, spelt, forage oats, annual ryegrass, foxtail millet, BMR (brown mid-rib) sorghum sudangrass, dwarf forage sorghum, and BMR forage sorghum. Foxtail millet was also planted along the right side of the plot, next to the road ditch. 

The front edge of the plot got singed with herbicide in turning a sprayer on the edge of the field while spraying the corn (bottom arrow). That’s easy to with a small plot on the edge of a field. I dug out one healthy tillage radish plant where the tuber was about 7 inches long and an inch or so in diameter. The berseem clover, annual ryegrass, and spelt were quite small yet. If they were a cover crop intermixed with a crop, that might be good at this point in the season. The forage oats was smaller than I expected but looked very healthy. I was quite impressed with the foxtail millet (middle arrow) and sorghum crops (top arrow). Moisture did not appear to be a limiting factor at this point. Corn on some sandier soil in the neighborhood was wilting badly.  

Foxtail millet is an annual grass hay crop that makes one cutting. It is usually ready to harvest 50 to 60 days after planting when it is at or near heading. As with other hay crops, cutting earlier provides higher protein and digestibility. It makes dry hay very similar to brome grass or less mature reed canary grass. I talked with several beef producers about foxtail millet as an annual hay crop where they wanted something that could readily make dry baled hay. It could be good for dairy dry cows and growing heifers also when a late planted crop is needed that has potential for dry hay.

The foxtail millet was 20 to 24 inches tall and quite leafy on August 6. I clipped a sample for testing. It tested 19% protein at this point with ADF at 33, NDF at 55, NDF digestibility at 68%, RRF (Relative Feed Value) at 105, and RFQ (Relative Feed Quality) at 150. This is about what I’d expect for a fairly immature, leafy grass.

The BMR sorghum sudangrass ranged from about 30 to 48 inches tall, maybe a little taller than you might cut it the first time. I clipped about half the plot to see how well it would regrow and to see what the remaining crop would do. It should regrow if cut above the lowest node with maybe a 6 inch stubble. With adequate moisture it could be cut again in about 30 days.

This forage lab test came back at 16% protein, ADF 36, NDF 60, NDF digestibility at 68%, RFV at 94, and RFQ at 142. So it was not a lot different than the foxtail millet; but more of it with potential for more with a second cutting. I laid the cut material out in my driveway, and it looks like making dry hay with this could be a challenge. In cutting a small amount, I did not try to estimate yield.

Farmers who planted alternative forage crops where they hope to take partial or full prevented planting payments should check with their insurance agents to make sure they stay in compliance with rules related to what they do with these fields. Farmers needing better quality feed might also watch feed quality and crop conditions, and consider the value of the feed related to the value of full or partial prevented planting payments.

This will be a year to see what we can learn from some of these situations; and I’d welcome opportunities to see and hear how some of these things turn out.

Photo credit: Dan Martens


Daniel Martens
Extension Educator, Ag Production Systems
(320) 968-5077
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