Faced with dwindling forage supplies in silos and questionable alfalfa stands, dairymen and livestock producers are looking for ideas about growing an early silage crop. Several alternatives are available for growers looking to harvest forage that will help them stretch their supplies until after corn silage harvest. When considering the options there are several key things to know and factors to consider:
- Alfalfa delivers protein. No crop provides crude protein yield like alfalfa - it is top of the list for total-season protein production.
- Corn silage delivers yield and starch. No crop provides total dry matter and starch production like corn silage - it is top of the list for total-season digestible energy production.
- What forage type are you short of?Consider whether summer forage is needed to make up for a shortage of corn silage or haylage or both. If making up for haylage, and there is already a hay crop growing on the farm, the shortage may be addressed using summer production to supplement a lack of haylage. Consider planting additional alfalfa this spring to increase total farm alfalfa production and avoid running out again in 2014 late winter.
- Early forage does not deliver starch. If corn silage is running low, then it will be difficult to replace the starch component with an early forage crop. Small grains harvested at soft dough offer an early alternative that provides some starch, but will not be a one-to-one replacement for corn silage in the ration.
- Small grain feed type differs based on harvest maturity. Spring small grains by themselves or with peas can be cut at 2 different growth stages for 2 different types of feed. Cut at boot stage they make very digestible forage with essentially no starch. Cut at the soft dough stage they provide starch, higher dry matter yield, but a lesser digestible forage fraction. Either harvest stage can make good forage but there are differences in harvest timing, yield, nutrient contributions to the ration, and feeding dynamics.
- Salvaging existing alfalfa stands is only a short-term fix. When alfalfa stands are marginal and forage is needed, growers may think about harvesting at least the 1st cutting from these fields. This can provide some short-term relief for empty silos, but rarely is economical for the farm enterprise. Marginal alfalfa fields are best plowed down and rotated to another crop such as corn silage. If keeping these stands and grass is a strong part of the mixture, fertilize heavily with nitrogen (N) to maximize yield.
In the following tables, key early forage options are described, including management strategies and expectations around harvest timing, yield and quality.