Emergency Forage Crop Options

Posted by Chris Eubanks, Heritage Seed Forage Agronomist on 07/23/2012

The severe drought that is ongoing in Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest is creating a forage-shortage crisis. The major dairy operations of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are really in panic mode. Feed for the next 12 months is going to be hard to find, at least affordable feed will be hard to find. What can be done?

Possibly the best option is to put temporary fencing around every available acre of harvested corn and soybean ground and plant something. For those dairy operations in the upper Midwest, there are only a handful of options for immediate forage production and production again in early spring.

1. BMR Forage Sorghums, Pearl Millet, Teff: These summer annuals can be excellent options, but time is rapidly running out to get these annuals in the ground and still get a quality harvest. With at least six weeks of growth after germination needed to produce a decent harvest, there is little time for significant growth to occur before cool weather arrives and plant growth slows or stops. But summer annuals don't provide any more forage in early spring.

2. Spring Oats (including spring oat-pea mixes): Plant early August. They can grow vigorously and provide a moderate forage yield in late fall. Will not overwinter.  Medium quality forage. Once again, this option doesn't product anything for the spring.

3. Winter Rye: Likely the best option for most producers. Plant early August if possible for a light-moderate forage yield in late fall. Usually overwinters and can provide a large forage yield in mid to late spring. Graze it or cut it. Medium quality forage. Plant 100 lbs/acre.

4. Cold tolerant annual ryegrass varieties (such as CoverRye annual ryegrass blend, which was developed for Wisconsin): Plant in early August if possible. Can provide a light-medium forage yield in late fall. Very good quality (high sugar content). Overwinter chances can be 50/50, with the best chances in southern Wisconsin and south. If it overwinters, it can provide a massive forage yield in mid to late spring. Plant 25 lbs/acre. Average seed cost is  $20/acre, so it can be a very affordable option, but winter survival is not guaranteed.

5. Pasture options – winter rye and forage turnip mix: Plant in early August if possible. A medium- to high-quality pasture option that can be grazed late in the season because of both species’ ability to remain green and upright even after the plants enter dormancy. Plant 60-80 lbs of winter rye and 3 pounds of forage turnips per acre. The winter rye should return fairly think in the spring for another long grazing cycle.

6. Temporary fixes to perennial forage fields that will be replanted in spring: Plant 20 lbs of CoverRye annual ryegrass and 3 pounds of forage turnips per acre after August 1. The field will provide some high quality grazing time in late fall. The field may not overwinter very well after being grazed down and should be ready for re-seeding with perennial grasses and clovers/alfalfa in early spring.