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Forages for drought conditions

By Zachary Larson

The recent cool down and rainfall is hopefully appreciated by everyone. However, this good weather may not make up for the hot and dry conditions we’ve experienced this summer.

Rainfall since mid-May is less than 5 inches, less than half of our 10-year average. Therefore, if you’re short on forage this year, you may need to find an option for producing extra feed before winter.

While it may be tempting to seed warm-season forages such as sorghums, sudangrasses and millets, they are rarely a good option when seeding after July 15.

As we approach the fall equinox, the loss of daylight accelerates with each day lessening the ability for these plants to produce. Additionally, slow germination in dry conditions means that they will not start to rapidly photosynthesize for a few weeks.

By then, we will likely see cooler weather and more rain. However, warm season grasses may be the only fit in fields where residual herbicides will prevent other forages from germinating.

Small grains, such as oats, are generally better options for August-seeded forages. Penn State research found that oats out-yielded sorghum-sudan and had greater protein content in early August seedings.

For small grains, I suggest seeding by population, targeting a minimum rate of 1.5 million seeds per acre. Pounds per acre can be determined by dividing 1.5 million by the number of seeds per pound on the seed tag. If that number is unavailable, use 15,000 seeds per pound. Seeds should be planted 1.0 to 1.25 inches deep, as planting depth will dictate rooting depth.

Oats should be harvested for silage in the milk to soft dough stage, with the early dough stage being the most palatable. Moisture levels between 60% to 70% are best for ensiling small grains, as silage below 60% moisture is difficult to pack and excessive heating and nutrient loss may occur.

Choppers should be set to a theoretical length of cut of 3/8 of an inch, as shorter material will minimize silage heating and maintain forage quality.

If you need additional forage for grazing, consider brassicas such as rape or turnips, as they are highly productive, extremely digestible and contain relatively high levels of crude protein. They can be no-tilled into grass pastures, grazed 80 to 90 days after seeding, and they lend themselves well to stockpiling. Rape can be easily managed for multiple grazings if 6 to 10 inches of stubble remains after the first grazing. Regrowth may be grazed at four-week intervals, with the final grazing done close to ground level.

Turnips can be grazed in a similar fashion if tops are removed during the first grazing. When grazing, introduce animals to brassicas slowly and avoid abrupt changes from low quality forage to lush brassica pastures to avoid bloat and other issues.

Additionally, brassica crops should not constitute more than 75% of the animal’s diet, so supplementing with dry hay or grass pasture is necessary.

Zach Larson is the Penn State Extension agronomy educator for Blair County. He can be reached at 814-414-0582.

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