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Forage crops may provide a viable option for farmers with irrigation

With corn prices taking a tumble, some ranchers with cattle and irrigated land are taking a look at planting a forage crop this year. 

“It is something producers who have both cattle and farm ground are looking at because they are in a situation where they probably don’t have enough pasture for the cattle they have,” according to Aaron Berger, University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension specialist. “It is a way they may be able to hold their cattle herd together.”

Feeding options

Earlier in the week, December corn futures were down to $5.50. 

“The price is getting to the point that with the cost of production, there is not a lot of margin left,” Berger said. “Forage will be in short supply this year, and right now, any decent hay will cost between $175 and $225 a ton.” 

“It is possible to grow four to five tons of annual forage for a hay crop on a pivot, with a combination of spring cool season and warm season annuals. It is almost equivalent, gross-wise, to what a producer could get growing a corn crop,” he noted. 

However, because each individual operation is different, Berger encourages producers to put a pencil to the numbers and consider input costs before making a final decision. 

Important factors to consider are how much water is available, when it will be available, when the forage will be needed and how much management the producer is willing to provide from a grazing standpoint. What class of livestock will be grazed, which dictates how much the forage is allowed to grow, and how it is grazed are another important consideration, he said. Producers will also need to look at their fertilizer program, what equipment they have available and whether the forage will be grazed or harvested and fed someplace else. 

Berger said producers will want to plan ahead because seed may be in short supply. 

“Because of the drought last year and the feed shortage this year, a lot of producers are considering planting annual forages,” Berger said. “If you are planning to plant annual forages this year, I would recommend locking down some seed soon, because there will be a shortage.”

Moisture concerns

Although annual forages will harvest more tonnage on irrigated land, dryland producers may also want to consider this option, if they think there may be adequate rainfall. 

“They could consider planting some spring annual forages, like triticale, oats or barley. If we get some rain, they may get a crop,” he said. “In early June, they could plant summer annuals like sudangrass, foxtail millet or teff, but you need to have some soil moisture and receive some rain for it to grow.”

Berger said summer annuals need 2.5 to 3.5 inches of moisture per ton of forage produced. Spring crops need 4.5 to 5.5 inches to produce a ton of forage. 

“Summer annuals are more efficient, but they have a higher evapo-transpiration rate than spring crops during the summer,” Berger explained. “In our region, we get most of our moisture in April, May and June. I would try and reduce risk by spreading out the planting of the crops over a few months to try and get some use out of any moisture we might receive.” 

Maximize harvest

To maximize the amount of forage harvested per acre, Berger said producers should consider windrow grazing, baling or chopping the forage for silage when it is in the boot or head stage. He urged producers to avoid turning livestock into the field to graze, unless the crop has been windrowed first. 

“Grazing is only 50 percent as efficient as windrow grazing, or putting the crop up as hay or silage,” he said. 

Once the crop has been utilized, producers may want to consider reworking the ground and planting another crop. 

“Producers could plant something like oats or spring triticale now, take it off by grazing or haying by the end of June or first of July, and then come back and plant something like sorghum sudan or sudangrass that could be grazed in August or September,” Berger said. “They will just have to have a place for the cattle to go while the newly planted crop is growing.”  

Berger recommends producers put a plan together of how they will plant and utilize the forage. 

“I would recommend putting together a chain, so you have forage available from late spring through fall, depending upon what your goals are and what you have available,” he said. 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..