Making the case for annual forages

With another dry year looming, producers may want to do whatever they can to set their annual forages up for success

Silage is one way to make the most of annual forage crops during a dry year.

A season staring at drought conditions is no year to leave feed on the table, and producers may want a more deliberate plan to make the most of their annuals.

After three years of short pastures, producers will be used to the province urging them to consider annuals for feed. Greenfeed has been an often-repeated option in official forage reports. Programs have been launched to encourage cover crops both for extra feed and soil health. Silage has become increasingly popular in beef operations, drawn both for its yield, energy and consistency in years where hayfields have flagged.

For one thing, farmers can expect their annual crops to be much more water-use efficient, according to provincial livestock and forage specialist, Shawn Cabak.

Why it matters: Many producers may shift grain fields to eleventh-hour greenfeed if their forage falls short, but provincial experts say we need more of that type of flexibility.

The province estimates that corn silage takes just over three inches of rain, half the requirement for either timothy grass or alfalfa, to produce a tonne of dry matter. One tonne of barley silage and oat silage, meanwhile, takes just under four inches and just under five inches of rain, respectively.

“All of our C4 plants, so that’s our corn, our millets, our sorghum, they’re all more water efficient and drought tolerant,” Cabak noted.

In a year where most of the province has seen less than half its normal precipitation since last November, that drought tolerance might be key.

“Our perennial forages do good in a wet year, but they don’t do so good in the dry years, which is what we’ve been seeing over the last three, four years,” Cabak said.

Annuals in the mix

Producers should choose a mix of warm- and cool-season annuals to maximize their feed production, according to Cabak.

The producer will also want to consider when they expect feed to be short, if those annuals will be grazed.

“Our fall-seeded winter cereal will produce some grazing in the fall time, and then it produces that really early grazing in the spring — the earliest grazing out of any of the annuals,” Cabak said.

For those without winter cereals already in the ground, the province says barley and oats seeded now will be ready for grazing by mid-June.

“But often that’s when we have a lot of perennial forage production,” Cabak noted.

“Our maximum perennial forage production is usually in June, so is that when we need our annuals, or do we want to graze those annuals a little bit later?” he said.

Crops will need four to six weeks after spring seeding before livestock can hit the field, according to provincial recommendations.

One option, Cabak said, might be to mix winter and spring cereals, which spread their maximum yield window through the summer. That field could then be harvested for greenfeed, with the vegetative winter cereal carrying on for late-summer and fall grazing. Italian ryegrass or a cover crop mixed with a spring cereal might offer a similar effect, he added.

Like in grain production, an early seed date also sets the stage for better yield. According to greenfeed yields collected from 2000 to 2008 in Manitoba, relative yields stayed above 100 per cent as long as crop was in the ground by late May.

Silage

Better technology has increased the options for silage and the number of producers turning to silage has likely increased even more since Manitoba’s recent spate of dry years started, Cabak noted, citing water efficiency of annuals.

Early corn silage carries about 31 per cent water-soluble carbohydrates and a fraction of the calcium — which resists the necessary pH drop for ensiling — found in alfalfa, Cabak noted. Barley at the milk stage shows similar trends, with 32 per cent plant sugars to alfalfa’s nine per cent, even at the early-vegetative state.

“As our forages get more mature, they will be more difficult to ensile, and that’s why conditions have to be ideal to make good perennial forage silage out of either alfalfa or timothy or orchard or quack or some of those other perennial forages,” Cabak said.

Harvest timing

The province suggests that oats bound for greenfeed or silage should be taken off at the late-milk stage, while cereals like barley, wheats or triticale should be taken at early to soft dough. Millet or sorghum harvested at early heading will help maximize yield and quality, according to provincial recommendations, while peas should be targeted when the first pods wrinkle.

In mixed pea-cereal fields, producers should base their harvest on the cereal timing, Cabak noted.

A multi-species mix, whether as a cover crop or straight greenfeed, will impact weed control options, Cabak also reminded, suggesting that producers putting in multiple species should choose a clean field.

“Having annuals as part of your rotation for your feed supplies is just extra insurance in those years where it might be too dry for perennial forage production,” Cabak argued.

“The annuals could be combined if you didn’t need it as greenfeed,” he added. “If it’s drier, you could take it off as greenfeed or as silage. It just gives us more flexibility to help meet those winter forage requirements.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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