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Answering the need for better forages

In early 2009, many producers faced severe alfalfa stand damage. With weather unpredictability becoming commonplace, serious alfalfa winterkill could easily become a regular occurrence. This means crop farmers need solid advice and the latest findings when choosing which quick, high-quality forages will best alleviate their shortages.


December 17, 2009
By Treena Hein

Topics
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 In the past few years, the quality and quantity of forages have been strained by a combi-nation of cool wet falls and winterkill.


 

In early 2009, many producers faced severe alfalfa stand damage. With weather unpredictability becoming commonplace, serious alfalfa winterkill could easily become a regular occurrence. This means crop farmers need solid advice and the latest findings when choosing which quick, high-quality forages will best alleviate their shortages. “Which forages to use is certainly an issue when we get a lot of alfalfa winterkill, and we had unprecedented winterkill in the spring of 2009,” says Joel Bagg, forage specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). “We had saturated soils going into the fall, which is the opposite of the cool and dry weather that alfalfa prefers to develop good cold hardiness.”

The challenging wet weather during the summer of 2008 also meant that in the fall of that year, farmers cut during the critical fall harvest period. “Then, during midwinter we got some snow melt and extremely cold weather so some icing and freezing occurred,” Bagg notes. “In the early spring of 2009, there was significant alfalfa frost heaving in many areas. We’re also seeing more alfalfa disease such as brown root rot and aphanomyces.”

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All these factors, he says, are leading to increasing interest in forages such as sorghums and other warm season annuals, as well as cool season annuals such as Italian ryegrass, peas and cereals. “There are good opportunities to use these crops if producers are able to find out early that they have sufficient winterkill to warrant their use,” observes Bagg. However, he warns that if producers do not seed the cool season annuals early, or if a dry year occurs, they will not get the yield they expect.

OMAFRA’s emerging crops specialist Scott Banks says much of the decision making about which forages to use depends on when the crop is seeded. “If a farmer with winterkill looks at options, first and best is to reseed alfalfa or establish a new alfalfa field, ideally after soybeans the year before,” he says. “If you want to seed cereals instead, seed as early as you can also. If you’re late, pick the warm season crops such as sorghum or sorghum-sudangrass because they’ll produce the best yields.”

There are also other factors to consider. “Cereal companion crops provide weed and erosion control,” says Banks. “Your livestock’s needs are also important.” A mix or straight cereals is best for cow-calf operations. For milking cows, Banks says that while adding peas brings up forage quality and increases crude protein slightly, it is more costly. In general, he has found teff grass to be no better than oats as a livestock feed.

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Dr. Tarlok Singh Sahota has conducted research near Thunder Bay, Ontario, to determine the best varieties and blends of cereals, grains and silage from various points across Canada. Photo courtesy of Dr. Tarlok Singh Sahota, TBARS.  

Current research
Extensive ongoing research into mainstream and alternate forages has been conducted for many years by Dr. Tarlok Singh Sahota, director of research and business at the Thunder Bay Agricultural Research Station. In 2008, he compared nine high-yielding varieties of barley, silage and grain from Eastern and Western Canada. “Brucefield had the highest silage yield (8087 kg/ha or 7215 lbs/ac), followed by CDC Coalition at 7060 and Millhouse at 6987 kg/ha (6299 and 6233 lbs/ac, respectively),” Sahota notes. “Protein content in silage barley was equally highest in CDC Battleford and CDC Coalition at 14 percent, followed by Cyane and Trochu at 13 percent. Cyane produced the highest grain yield of 8344 kg/ha (7444 lbs/ac).”
In terms of winter wheat, Sahota concludes, “At the boot stage, it definitely could be used as forage. I found the best overall yield in AC Morley, which increased in dry matter accumulation from 6114 kg/ha (5455 lbs/ac) on June 24 to 8740 kg/ha (7798 lbs/ac) on August 4. However, its protein yield at boot stage (July 24) of 726 kg/ha (648 lbs/ac) was bested by AC Sampson at 843 kg/ha (752 lbs/ac).”

Considering both yield and protein content, Sahota also found that 90M01 is the best variety of soybean to choose as an emergency forage option. He also concludes that berseem clover, which is the main forage crop in northwest India, could be a potential new forage crop for Ontario. “Its protein content was 21 percent in our trials, versus 14 for teff and nine percent for oats,” he says. “Seed it early. Also keep in mind that we found seeding it with oats at a rate of either 50 or 70 percent gives an increased dry matter yield over berseem or oats alone.” 
Sahota also tested Galega, a forage legume from Scandinavia. “I found the dry matter yield (4440kg/ha or 3961 lbs/ac) of Galega to be 95 percent of alfalfa yield (4684 kg/ha or 4179 lbs/ac), but in pure stands, orchard grass was higher than alfalfa or Galega,” he says. “Mixed cropping of orchard grass with Galega, but not with timothy, tended to improve yield. In alfalfa, mixed stands with both the grasses improved the yield.”

In terms of meeting dairy cattle dietary needs, Sahota recommends diverse cropping. “Try new crops and add old ones such as soybean and peas. Intercrop barley with peas rather than growing barley alone,” he says. “Grow winter cereals for forage-fall grazing or spring harvesting. Fall-grazed winter cereals can be left for grain production.”

Aside from advice about which forages are best, Bagg stresses that it is best to stay out of a situation where emergency forages are needed in the first place. “Assess alfalfa stands in the spring by digging out roots and crowns with a shovel and examining them by slicing with a knife,” he says, “and use better varieties to minimize disease and increase persistence. Test your soil to ensure proper fertility.”

As a final word advice, he says, “Considering the yield loss as stands age past three or four years, the relatively small cost of establishment over the life of the stand, and the nitrogen credit as we rotate alfalfa into corn, the best option is often to shorten our rotations with new alfalfa seedings.”