Give Your Combine a Break: Graze Your Crops

You may have heard or read about Nebraska farmers grazing corn. Many farmers have successfully grazed their livestock on corn; however, it is not the only crop that can be grazed. Diversity is one of the strengths of sustainable agriculture, so why not consider some other options?

Grazing a pure stand of alfalfa is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who donít have time for intensive management. Ask Dave Zurovski of St. Edward, who is just finishing his second year of grazing alfalfa. Right now he is trying to decide if the benefits are worth the risks. The benefits will not be known until the cattle are sold, but Zurovski says that he knows the risks well. When grazing alfalfa, there is always the worry that the cattle will bloat, either because of a management mistake or because they spooked and went through the fence.

He also had problems with eleven consecutive days of rain in June. During that period he decided to keep grazing alfalfa, a decision he regrets today. He says that the cattle ruined part of the field and the number of daily moves the wet alfalfa required (five) probably wasnít worth it.

Zurovski and Don Peregrine of Fullerton have both found that grazing corn and alfalfa at the same time works well. They give the cattle a strip of corn in the morning and then a strip of alfalfa in the afternoon. Peregrine says he didnít have any trouble with bloat and the alfalfa field, which was weedy during grazing, looks great now. He now has 270 head grazing a 40-acre field of corn that he thinks will last him 80 days.

Weeping Waterís Jim Bender, in his book Future Harvest: Pesticide Free Farming, describes his method of grazing turnips planted with clover in the spring, after summer grains, or even after some fall-harvested crops.

Bender believes that turnips are an important part of his system. His main problem has been keeping the seeding rate low enough (1 lb./ac) with his broadcast seeder. In trying to seed turnips with other crops, Bender has been limited by the compatibility of the seeds with the broadcast seeder. So far, he has not found a mixture that is better than turnips by themselves. In his experience, turnips should be sown in the last week in July for best results in eastern Nebraska.

Tom Larson of St. Edward also lets his cattle graze turnips. He seeds them after oats in strips with corn and soybeans. Then, in the fall, cattle graze strips of corn and soybean stubble with the turnips and volunteer oats. With 14% crude protein and 84% total digestible nutrients, turnips deserve serious consideration as a forage crop.

Winter grains
Although it is probably too late to plant now, according to forage specialist Bruce Anderson, winter rye, wheat or triticale, can be ready to graze shortly after warmer weather arrives next spring if planted in the fall. However, Anderson says that winter wheat that will be harvested later for grain canít be grazed for very long. Once plants begin to joint or form nodes above the soil surface, grazing must stop or grain yield will be reduced. This usually happens around early April in southern Nebraska and northern Kansas; in northern Nebraska it commonly occurs in mid to late April.

To keep grazing until permanent pastures are ready, some wheat, rye, or triticale should be planted specifically for grazing only. One acre will often feed two or three cows for a month if grazing doesnít start until plants begin to joint. Plus, you can still plant corn, beans, or other row crops into the grazed-out stubble.

Bruce Anderson thinks that oats might be the best-kept secret in the forage industry. Oats can be grazed earlier than anything else planted in the spring. He recommends drilling about 3 bushels per acre as soon as possible after mid-March. The oats will be 6 to 8 inches tall and ready to graze in 5 or 6 weeks. With good soil moisture and 30 to 60 pounds of nitrogen, oats can provide a couple months of grazing for 1 or 2 cows per acre.

If what you need is hay thatís ideal for young stock, Anderson recommends cutting oats just as it is heading out. This hay can have over 10 percent protein and 65 percent TDN as well as good palatability. Or you can increase yield by about one-third, and cut oats in the milk stage for hay with 8 percent protein and 55 percent TDN - an excellent feed for stock cows.

Oats also have the potential to stimulate yields from a thin, worn out alfalfa stand. If you discover that you suffered winter injury to your alfalfa and have thin stands, you wonít reach your yield potential or much of it might be in the form of weeds. To improve the yield and quality, just drill a bushel of oats per acre directly into you alfalfa as soon as possible. Then cut your hay like normal.

Oats can also be grazed in the fall. UNL researchers found that steers gained about 2 lbs./day when fall grazing oats that had been planted into wheat stubble. The grazing lasted from about the middle of September to mid-October.

USDA Geneticist Thomas Devine has bred three new giant soybean cultivars-Derry, Donnegal, and Tyrone-to provide high-protein livestock forage. These cultivars are the result of 19 years of breeding and are the first improved forage-type soybeans bred for animal feed. In 1996 tests, the soybeans produced over 6 tons of dry matter/acre, more than 75% more than conventional soybeans, and were found to be as palatable as alfalfa. The soybeans are now being grown out for seed by a private company and should be available for the year 2000.

Annual summer grasses
According to Bruce Anderson, there are five different types of summer annual forage grasses: sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, forage sorghum (which we often call cane or sorgo), foxtail millet, and pearl millet. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. The one you choose should be based primarily on how you plan to use it. For example, do you want a summer annual grass for pasture? Then use sudangrass or pearl millet. They are leafy, they regrow rapidly, and they contain less danger from prussic acid poisoning than other annual grasses.

What if you want hay or green chop? Then select sorghum-sudan hybrids or pearl millet because they yield well and they have good feed value when cut two or three times. On sandy soils, though, foxtail millet may be a better choice for a summer hay crop. It dries fast, doesnít regrow after cutting, and it handles dry soils well. Cane hay also is grown in many areas and produces high tonnage, but it is lower in feed value and it dries more slowly after cutting than the hybrids or millets.

Maybe you plan to chop silage. Then choose the forage sorghums, especially hybrids with high grain production. They canít be beat for tonnage or for feed value.

Burt Weichenthal, Extension Beef Specialist at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center, is currently doing research on summer annual forages that meet the

requirements of Western Nebraska.

Not just for cattle
This year, Dan Choat of St. Edward has grazed over 200 sows on alfalfa, standing corn, corn stalks, and soybeans. During the summer, he grazes the sows on alfalfa. They are allowed into paddocks sectioned off with electric fence. This year, because of the low hog prices, Choat hasnít given the sows any additional feed and so has sows that are, "a little thin." In a normal year, he would recommend feeding some corn to the sows in addition to the alfalfa for best results. He hopes to continue to graze the alfalfa until the beginning of November or as long as the weather holds out.

When grazing the alfalfa is no longer possible, Choat moves his sows to the neighbors corn stalks. Given his experience last winter, Choat hopes to keep them on stalks until March 15 of next year. Then he will strip graze his field planted 75% to corn and 25% to soybeans. His plans are to graze the corn/soybeans until May 15, when the sows will again be put on alfalfa.

Choatís biggest problem is keeping the sows in the paddocks. The solution was a better electric fencer that keeps the fence charged even when it is set at the top of the alfalfa. Another problem has been the hog prices, but there isnít much you can do about them. However, Choat says that his low cost approach has allowed him to stay in business during a period that would have meant the end of his operation under conventional management.

Other possibilities
The possibilities are many. There are annual clovers, medics, winter annuals, brassicas, intercrops, multiple species grazing, relay grazing, and the interaction of these forages with high quality, intensively managed, grass dominated pastures.

Allan Nation, editor of the Stockman Grass Farmer, issued a challenge in the August issue to people considering a sizable grass-finished steer program: Develop a production system that will allow you to produce a truckload of 850 lb. steers every month of the year. Here is a similar, but less restricting challenge: Develop a grazing system that will allow you to graze high quality forages year round with whatever mix of livestock you can market profitably. As Nation says, "this will force you to think in terms of a planned series of forages rather than just one or two." Let your imagination be your guide.

- Assembled by Andy McGuire, from various sources

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