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A new take on some old forage tools

Leanne Dillard for Progressive Forage Published on 01 February 2018
steers on pasture

Last year, I had the opportunity to attend a talk on the “Forage Toolbox” by Dennis Hancock. It reminded me there is no one right way to have a forage program, but we should continually assess all the available tools in our toolbox and use them as and when necessary to achieve our production goals.

Originally, this article was to be about new and improved technologies for use in forage programs; however, many of the things I will discuss below have been used to varying degrees for decades, if not centuries, and may have just been forgotten for the last few years.

Brassicas

Forage brassicas (e.g., rapeseed, turnip, kale, radish) are gaining popularity among producers for both their environmental and soil health benefits – but also their animal performance. Brassicas themselves are not new, but new varieties have been shown to have better nutritive quality and easier establishment than older varieties. When planted in a cool-season annual mixture, the addition of brassicas can add 30 to 45 days to the winter grazing season. They also provide high-quality forage with a crude protein of 20 to 26 percent and 65 to 70 percent total digestible nutrients. A research trial conducted by the University of Georgia using stocker cattle achieved average daily gains of 2.6 to 2.9 pounds per head per day during the spring grazing season, which was comparable to the winter wheat treatment (2.9 pounds per head per day).

Native grasses

Native warm-season grasses are another group of forages that have been around since pre-Columbian times but have largely been ignored for improved forages over the last century. Species such as big bluestem, little bluestem, Eastern gamagrass, switchgrass and indiangrass have been used with success throughout the Southeast and Midwest in beef cattle forage programs.

A major benefit of using these forages is their success on marginal soils (e.g., droughty or flood-prone areas) and their high biomass production with low fertilizer and management inputs.

The major drawback of native warm-season grasses is the challenging and slow establishment period. Fields planted to native warm-season grasses must be taken out of production and not grazed for at least 18 months. However, research in Tennessee and Oklahoma has shown 1.54 to 3.37 pounds per head per day average daily gains using stocker cattle and replacement heifers.

Legumes

While not novel alone, mixing warm-season perennials and perennial legumes is also showing promise throughout the Southeast. Adding legumes to grasses improves crude protein, neutral detergent fiber, in vitro digestibility and reduces nitrogen fertilization needs. Furthermore, by combining a warm-season perennial grass like bermudagrass with alfalfa, the growing season is extended.

Research from the University of Georgia shows the addition of alfalfa to Tifton-85 bermudagrass increases the relative forage quality by 25 to 70 points, the crude protein to 14 to 18 percent or more and the total digestible nutrients to 60 to 64 percent. Furthermore, the addition of bermudagrass decreases the drying time of alfalfa during hay production.

Another option is the inclusion of perennial peanut in bahiagrass fields. This option is of lower quality than the alfalfa-plus-bermudagrass mixture and has a more limited production area (lower coastal plain of South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, and statewide in Florida). However, this mixture offers easier management to maintain compared with the alfalfa-plus-bermudagrass mixtures and can easily meet the nutrient requirements of most beef cattle.

cow in woods

Silvopasture

Silvopasture is the management of a property for livestock, forage and timber on the same land parcel. In this system, the goal is to optimize (not maximize) the livestock, forage and timber production components. While any multi-use system is challenging to manage, the greater economic diversification is often motivation for producers.

The selection of tree species is dependent on location but, in the Southeast, loblolly, slash and longleaf pines are good options. Research from the University of Missouri and Virginia Tech University has shown use of hardwoods can be successful in more temperate climates. Forage species selection is also important. Native warm-season grasses, bahiagrass and red and white clovers have been shown to be good candidate species. Regardless of species, the forage needs to be shade-tolerant.

Trees should be planted or thinned into single or double rows with a large alley between to allow for forage growth. Research in Alabama has shown cattle in silvopasture systems spend more time grazing during the hottest parts of the day compared with traditional open pastures. However, forage production was reduced due to tree shade.

Baleage

Baleage is another somewhat new tool, especially in the Southeast. In wet springs (like that of 2017), many producers found it difficult to find a window to cut, dry and bale hay. Baleage offers an alternative – however, at a cost. Baleage is baled when forage is 50 to 65 percent moisture and allows for forage storage that otherwise would not be suitable for hay. Furthermore, cumulative forage loss is reduced to only about 10 percent of the original dry matter, compared with at least 40 percent with hay bales stored uncovered outside.

Research from Auburn University has shown annual ryegrass baleage had greater crude protein than corn silage and produced similar average daily gains during a 45-day pre-conditioning study (0.67 pound per head per day). A similar study in Alabama showed no difference in pearl millet baleage, sorghum-sudangrass baleage or Tifton-85 bermudagrass hay in total calf bodyweight gain or cow milk production at 32 and 52 days. However, there was a greater cost ($2.07 per day) associated with the baleage treatments compared with the bermudagrass hay ($1.65 per day).

Which tool?

As I mentioned at the beginning, these are simply tools to use in your forage program. Each one of these tools should not be used alone, but as part of a larger forage system. If you have lowland fields, perhaps plant native warm-season grasses to graze while you give your tall fescue pastures a rest during the summer. If you have some acreage of managed timberland, consider targeted thinning to allow for silvopasture management. The more tools we use from our toolbox, the more successful we will be as forage and livestock producers. By improving our economic and environmental stewardship, we protect our farms for future generations.  end mark

Leanne Dillard
  • Leanne Dillard

  • Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist – Forage Systems
  • Auburn University
  • Email Leanne Dillard

PHOTO 1: Steers graze a pasture of oats, crimson clover and brassicas in Watkinsville, Georgia. Photo by Deidre Harmon.

PHOTO 2: A steer grazes a pine-bahiagrass silvopasture in Chipley, Florida. Photo courtesy of Mediassociates.

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