Finding alternative forage options to alfalfa

High alfalfa winterkill levels this spring led growers to consider other species to get enough feed

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High winterkill in forage this spring meant farmers looked for other species to provide feed for livestock.

OMAFRA forage and grazing specialist Christine O’Reilly and University of Guelph forage research technician Donna Hancock took the opportunity to review some different forage options at the FarmSmart Expo at the Elora Research Station in July.

Why it matters: Alfalfa which has been killed off cannot be planted back into alfalfa due to its natural autotoxicity. Other options are needed for farmers needing to replant forage.

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“When it comes to boosting those forage inventories often growers are looking for one or a combination of three things; that’s protein content, digestible fibre or energy and yield,” O’Reilly said

She said the protein value of red clover is equal to that of alfalfa — around 20 to 23 per cent — but it’s a tougher crop to dry, so it’s important to ensure the crop reaches ideal storage moisture before ensiling. “If you are ensiling red clover, you want about 65 per cent moisture.”

O’Reilly said many farmers confuse the dark colour of the ensiled red clover with spoilage, but it’s common with the heating and caramelizing for red clover to get as dark as it does.

Both researchers hope to learn more of the feeding potential found in clovers this fall, after the evaluation and harvest of the forage trial at the Elora Research Station.

A cereal and pea mixture has a lower, but still adequate, protein content at 18 per cent. In most mixes, the cereals and peas tend to bloom around the same time. If growing conditions spread out the maturity — cereals are known to grow in cooler conditions compared to peas — O’Reilly suggests harvesting when the cereals are ready.

“Cereals are a grass. We want to harvest when the grass is ready because the quality will decline faster in a grass than in a legume. Harvest at or just before the boot stage in the cereal.”

NDF and energy

O’Reilly said energy and neutral detergent fibre (NDF) can be somewhat interchangeable. When looking at cereal species for a fibre and energy source there is not much nutritional difference between them. “We learned from research that Jim Johnson did in the late ‘90s and early 2000s that so long as (the cereals) are harvested at the same stage of maturity it’s really the crop maturity that influences the nutritional value than the species.”

Unless the cereals are being grown with peas or any other type of mixture, there are many options for timing of harvest. When harvested at the late boot to early-head stage, cereals have higher NDF and total digestible nutrients (TDN), compared to harvesting at a head emergence to soft dough stage. However, the soft head emergence to soft dough stage shows a higher yield.

“(The head emergence to soft dough stage) would feed a little bit more like corn silage, not exactly like corn silage, because you have that starch, and less digestible fibre in it,” O’Reilly said.

However, it’s not ideal to feed the cereals as a bailage. The moisture content is not evenly distributed and trying to lower the pH to allow for preservation is difficult.

“A grassy, pre-boot stage would make great bailage or you can ensile it, if you wait until soft dough, putting it in a bunker, tower or bag would be your best bet,” O’Reilly said.

‘Rocket fuel’

Italian ryegrass, more commonly known as annual ryegrass, can be a ‘rocket fuel’ for ruminants.

“It has the highest total TDN — which is a measure of energy, it’s got by far the highest digestible fibre, and if you look at its protein content, 20 to 23 per cent, that’s in line with our legumes,” O’Reilly said.

Due to annual ryegrass making such a great feed, forage breeders have been trying to increase the hardiness.

“It’s commonly used in temperate climates such as New Zealand and the British Isles. They want to spread it into other regions.”

For sorghum sudangrass, the brown mid rib (BMR) decreases the lignin production, allowing for an increase in digestibility.

The management of sudangrass is pretty much the same as that of corn silage, just ensure not to plant BMR and non-BMR varieties together, O’Reilly said.

“(The two varieties) cannot be stored together because they will feed differently. Keeping them separate helps the nutritionist to balance the two feeds correctly.”

Corn silage is another option, coming out as the top yielder. If it does not make the half- or three-quarter milk line that is common for silage, there is still a lot of sugar in the stem, allowing it to ferment well if not producing any grain.

“Even though your yield potential does decrease with every day of delayed planting, it’s still a big subtropical grass that has been bred for our climate so it’s a good yield potential, O’Reilly said.”

The forage trial at the Elora Research Station contains 25 different mixes, including individual species and different mixtures to allow for different harvest windows throughout the season.

“Quality and Speare Seeds were nice to donate the seed (for this trial), along with the forage analysis at A&L Labs in London, Ontario at a reduced cost. We are hoping for some good information for Christine to present at the FarmSmart in January of next year with the respect to yield and quality of these forages,” Hancock said.

Table: Forage options.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer lives on a farm in Cayuga, Ontario and has a lot of experience in the many aspects of agriculture.

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