Challenging decisions for forage producers

By John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, it has been a very wet spring in the state of Ohio and most surrounding states. The cool, wet weather has put nearly every farming enterprise behind schedule thus far and this week’s weather forecast offers little immediate relief. Corn planting is well behind schedule and soybean planting may soon join the same trend. Poor field conditions have also prevented forage producers from making seedings for permanent pastures or hay fields.

The poor field conditions are particularly troubling for beef producers wanting to improve their forage situation. Even though it seems like a distant memory, the fall of 2010 was abnormally dry in many locations, which resulted in many substandard or delayed seedings. This fact combined with the current field conditions has put many forage enterprises in a precarious situation.

This week’s weather will push the earliest opportunity to return to the field into next week which puts us at the first of May. This places us outside of the recommended planting window for permanent forage seeding in Ohio. When field conditions eventually improve, the temptation will be great to go ahead and try to make a perennial forage seeding. My advice is to avoid the temptation as cool season grass and legume seedings are an expensive long-term investment that should be made in the best scenario possible.

If you decide to delay a forage seeding, you now have a variety of management decisions to make that will potentially impact your operation for several years. There is not a “one size fits all” philosophy that will fit every operation. The producer has to analyze land resources, equipment owned or custom hire options, available feed supply, and animal inventory to make the best possible decision for their operation.

If it is determined that you need to maintain, expand, or improve your permanent forage base, one decision that needs to take place fairly quickly is whether the forage seeding needs to be completed in the late summer or early fall of 2011 or can be delayed until 2012. The ideal window for a late season seeding in Ohio ranges from August 1 through September 15 depending on your location within the state. If this is your goal, you have few options to produce a forage crop and still complete a 2011 seeding.

If you have an existing forage stand that is fading in productivity and needs renovating, consider taking a first cutting of hay, destroy the forage stand through the use of chemicals or conventional tillage and make the forage seeding later this year. If you do not need to make the permanent forage seeding until 2102, take the first cutting of hay and then plant soybeans or corn silage for revenue generation or feed production.

If the field in question has no existing forage growth present or has stubble from a previous crop, there may be a few more options available for the producer. If you are in need of immediate forage production, consider a summer annual forage crop such as oats, annual ryegrass, pearl millet, teff, or a sorghum-sudangrass hybrid as well as the corn silage option. Each of these options has its own particular strength and/or weakness.

The desire to make a 2011 perennial forage seeding probably limits the full season effectiveness of the corn silage, sorghum-sudangrass, and teff options. These crops can produce significant amounts of feed if they are given a full season of growth. If rotational grazing can be implemented, this may be the most cost-effective harvest option. If mechanical harvest must be used, consider “green wrapping” the crop as haymaking can be difficult because most of the summer annual forage options possess larger stems that can make drying difficult.

Given the current level of corn and soybean prices, it may feasible to place the acreage in grain production for 2011 and make the forage seeding in 2012. Of course, the current soil conditions and the impact on the eventual planting date must be considered. Inputs that will be purchased for an unplanned crop will certainly be more expensive than inputs purchased with seasonal discounts. If your equipment situation is lacking and custom operators are not readily available, consider cash renting or a share crop arrangement if a willing party can be identified.

The current situation facing beef producers requires them to closely examine the overall forage and feed production system being utilized in their operation. Today’s grain prices will require forage production to be competitive with corn and soybeans. Permanent pastures should remain in forage production due to limitations for grain production. However, dry hay yields of 2-4 tons/acre are probably not satisfactory in terms of profitable feed and forage production. Otherwise, beef producers will lose acres currently devoted for forage production to future grain production.

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