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Alternative forage red flags

Brad Nelson Published on 31 December 2009

 More than just a few years ago a sugar factory was built at Moses Lake, Washington.

One of the area farmers told me about his beginnings raising sugar beets. They were seeing neighbors set aside hundreds of acres of land for sugar beets, and the fieldmen for the sugar company all painted a picture of the beet growers rolling in money. Ted said that they went ahead and planted some sugar beets just like most of their neighbors did.

The difference, Ted went on, was that the first year he and his sons grew sugar beets, they planted five acres. That five-acre beet patch took more time than the whole rest of the farm.

Contrary to the big talk of the sugar company’s fieldmen, they did not make any money. They did not even break even. The next year they planted 20 acres and the third year, 100. If the mistakes made in the first year on five acres had been made on 100 acres, the family may not have been able to farm the following year.

In the area of Mountain Home, Idaho some years back, a fellow tried growing oat and Austrian Pea hay. This was planted after a grain crop. It grew tall and thick. It went about nine ton to the acre. It was October before they finally cut it.

The next day the weather turned from “Indian Summer” to “late fall,” and the huge windrows would not dry down to baling moisture. After three weeks of turning it every two or three days to keep the bottom of the windrows from molding, and having it snowed on twice, they baled it up. Cattle loved it. Before they could get it hauled, all the stacks fell over.

One hay hauler (yours truly) loaded a straight, square load and moved it about 70 miles one evening. The next morning the load had shifted and leaned so bad that we had to unload it onto a wagon and pickups to deliver it.

When the hay haulers complained to the growers about the impossibility of hauling it on a flat-bed truck, the grower shrugged and said, “Where else can you buy baled silage?” The oat and pea hay needed to be planted and cut earlier. The next step would be to develop a ready market for the hay.

The experience of something as simple as adding a field of orchard grass to an alfalfa haying operation can be a test of anyone’s patience and composure. One operation in southwest Idaho had the father pull rank and cut the grass hay ahead of the alfalfa.

The reason he did was that he had just put a new, very sharp sickle blade in the swather and wanted to lay the tough grass down with a sharp blade. The problem was that the four days he burned up cutting the grass let the alfalfa mature enough that it was no longer premium dairy hay.

Alfalfa needs to be baled with enough dew moisture to hold the leaves intact on the stems as it is picked up and moved through the baler. Orchard grass needs to be good and dry when it is baled.

To tell if the grass is dry or just seems to be dry, the knuckle on the stem needs to be broken open. Any sign of moisture in the knuckle and you risk moisture damage inside the bale. A moisture meter may not catch knuckle moisture at baling, and the grower may not realize that there is a problem until the haystacks start lying down.

Timothy hay shares this danger. Also Sudan grass, which has an added red flag, that being high nitrates. If Sudan grass is grown as a second crop, it is a regular occurrence for the growing season to end before the Sudan grass is mature enough to be low enough in nitrates to be safe to feed to livestock.

The universities are much better at developing new varieties of forages than they are at developing a ready market for them. Before getting excited about a new forage, look to the market for the same.

Everything that starts out as a specialty crop needs to be just about perfect to have a market. Often just what qualifies it as “perfect” is in the eye of the buyer, and just as often the growers have no idea what the buyer really wants.

I have seen groups of hay buyers from Japan examine a stack of bright green oat hay and comment that it is “too green; there must be something wrong with this hay!” The oat hay they were accustomed to was more of a pale green, almost a bleached color.

Who is going to buy it and what do they expect it to look like? Just because the cows love it is not enough – until they let the cows write the check. Just like my friend who started out small with the sugar beets, it may be prudent to start out very conservative with a new forage. Some cautions and comments about some of the other crop options are:

Mattua grass likes wet and it likes hot. (There was quite a splash a few years back when this was introduced into Washington State’s Columbia basin. Orchard grass and timothy remain the dominant grass crops, and I don’t know where more than a couple of patches of Mattua grass can be found. Sounds like Mattua grass would not be a good crop choice in areas where irrigation water may be of short supply.)

Orchard grass needs to be fertilized between cuttings to have the yield and the texture the feed stores and stables get all excited about. This translates into “expensive to grow.”

One danger with any of the grasses has to do with moisture at baling and storage. If the grass is just a very little bit too wet when it is baled it could start to “burn”, or change color in the stack. It will pick up somewhat of a silage smell as it does this. The bales need to stay in the field for a day or two if there is any chance that they were baled too wet. Yes, this will cause the sun to bleach the outside of the bales, which will lower their appeal to the feed store crowd. But it will save it from changing color and smelling like silage if it were stacked and wrap-tarped right out of the baler. Isn’t it fun to make hay? By the way, the tarp companies will cover a stack with a top tarp and then come back later to side-tarp the hay. This will give the hay another chance to sweat the high-moisture out of it.

Ask the person who is pressuring you to grow a new forage for his company to list for you in writing the things that would make the product “NOT ACCEPTABLE.” If he does not know, then that should be your answer also to the question of “Will you grow this plant for us?” I realize that someone has to be the brave one to grow something no one else has grown before. Just remember that Kochia weed was brought into this country as a miracle forage plant. And it has potential. Kochia cut, dried and baled when it is less than 20 inches tall will feed and milk as well or better than very nice alfalfa hay. Its downfall is that it will grow into a tumbleweed large enough to eat a Volkswagen.

And finally, an eccentric is one a little off the beaten path who has a little money or property about him. An eccentric with neither of the above is usually referred to as the village idiot. Get all the facts you can. Start small enough to control the new forage crop and learn how to grow it. Be sure the buyers are going to be there and that they have some money. Oftentimes there is but a small, thin line between being brave and being stupid.  FG

Brad Nelson

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