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Do Your Forage Selection Homework

Posted Apr. 30, 2003

I knew a guy in the cattle business one time who tended to be a bit impulsive. He was attending a bull sale when the auctioneer got hung up on a lot. They stopped the sale and the auctioneer started giving a big sales pitch on the bull and how great he was. My friend started twitching, agreeing with the auctioneer then yanked out his catalog and started waving it around. Needless to say he bought him, but when he got him home he decided he didn't like him! Too late that decision should have been made well in advance of the auction.

What this producer failed to do prior to attending the sale was his homework, which happens as well to folks when they are selecting a forage species or variety. There are lots of shiny advertisements in the popular press for forages that sound like the best thing to come along since ice cream, washing machines or any other item that has improved mankind. Before buying into fancy sounding claims for forage selection, follow the homework assignment given below.

Homework For Forage Selection
(Note This assignment is to be started one year in advance of and to be completed no later than six months prior to seeding or sprigging.)

Site Selection
Soil drainage, fertility and pH requirements need to be determined and plans made to adjust for deficiencies before the first seed or sprig is put in the ground. Tolerance of these variables varies widely by species as evidenced by examples in the table below. Know what your soil is capable of supporting and the plant requirements before investing in a particular species to avoid stand establishment failure, poor yields or poor persistence.

Supporting Data
Often, popular press magazines are filled with ads for forages making claims that are larger than life. Don't make an investment based just on what an ad claims, look for supporting data. If supporting data is there, look for the source. Land grant universities and organizations like the Noble Research Institute perform variety trials, grazing, persistence and fertility studies along with a whole host of other studies that provide a source of unbiased data to help producers make informed decisions.

Is Supporting Data Relevant?
Take a look to see if the environment from which the data was collected from is relevant to yours. Also, was data collected from a study that was replicated? Replication adds precision and reliability to data. Look to see if similar results are being reported from other reliable sources. If so, then that adds to your supporting data. If not, be cautious. You may be looking at a species or variety that has found an adaptation niche or simply a fluke. Making an establishment decision in Oklahoma based on one year's worth of data from North Dakota is not wise.

Moisture Requirements
No question that if spots in our service area received another 10 inches of rainfall per year it would greatly add to plant diversity. As an example, moisture greatly impacts persistence of cool-season grasses and legumes. The plant physiology of cool-season forages makes them not as efficient at utilizing moisture as warm-season forages. Hence their moisture requirements are higher. Understand plant moisture requirements and if you do decide to put a species into an area where it may not be well adapted, pay careful attention to site selection.

Anti-Quality Factors
When an ad is trying to convince you to make a purchase, it is likely not going to mention any sort of a downside. Many forage plants have some type of anti-quality factor such as bloat potential, tannin, prussic acid potential, etc., that can have a negative effect on animal performance. By utilizing these forages we accept a certain degree of risk because of the benefits that can be attained. It is one thing to be aware of risks and know how to manage to minimize them, it is quite another to be caught off guard and be forced to learn on the go. Investigate potential anti-quality factors and management needs prior to investing.

Quality Factors
Most variety trials provide quality data. The ultimate measure of forage quality is animal performance. Look for grazing studies reporting animal gain to support variety trial data.

Perennial Longevity
In certain perennials we accept a limited life span because of the yield, quality and returns we can get during their productive years. An example is alfalfa. Longevity can be greatly influenced by management, but if we are dealing with an inherently short lived perennial, the more you need to get out of it while you can in order to get your total cost back out of it.

Persistence
How hard will you have to manage a plant for it to persist? Some forage plants can take a tremendous amount of abuse and still come back strong others cannot. Plant persistence is directly linked to the intensity and frequency of defoliation. Intensity and frequency of defoliation is directly influenced by length of rest period, which in turn is impacted by the location of the plant's growth point and carbohydrate storage areas. Not all plants are alike in this, which makes them respond differently to grazing or haying. As an example, if alfalfa is grazed intensely, growth points can be removed along with leaves, and all regrowth must start from the crown, thus requiring a lengthy rest period. By contrast, growth points of bermudagrass are very close to the ground and, when grazed intensely, can recover with a short rest period.

Plant persistence may be the single most important consideration in species or variety selection. All potential yields are lost if plants do not persist.

Hay versus Grazing
How you plan to use forage influences not only species selection but also variety within species. Forage plant response to intensity and frequency of defoliation varies. While one variety may fare very poorly under close continuous grazing, it may respond excellently under haying. Learn these differences and match your needs to the forage accordingly.

The best buy is not always the cheapest
Purchasing a cheap alfalfa variety when you are in the hay business may not prove to be a good investment. Yield and quality advantages of a higher-priced variety may more than make up for initial seed cost differences. Another example is in dealing with some of the anti-quality factors mentioned earlier. Newer varieties with fewer of these problems may cost more to establish, but returns in animal performance could easily offset cost.

Yield and yield distribution
How much and when do you need it? Will a cool season or warm season forage better suit your distribution needs? There's no question that forages vary tremendously in yield and distribution that can in turn be influenced by fertility, moisture and defoliation management. In planning your forage program, take into account both of these factors and plan to manage accordingly, whether it be to add or subtract grazing numbers or make hay.

Pure stand or mixtures?
Plants respond differently when grown in a pure stand or mixture. How aggressive is a plant? How does it tolerate shading by other plants? Will it mature earlier or later than other plants in the mixture? Are you considering a mixture of warm and cool season plants? Be very careful to learn management requirements to maintain a mixture like this or you can easily favor one species over the other. Find answers to these questions before establishing a mixture and then losing your plant diversity and increasing your cost.

Ease of establishment
What type of seedbed preparation, if any, is needed prior to establishment? How long will it take after establishment before it can be used? If your land area has to sit out of production a couple of years while you wait on stand establishment, can you afford it?

Wildlife interest
Certain forages are better suited to wildlife benefits than others. If enhancing wildlife is one of your goals, take this factor into account.

Management after establishment
Fertility to reach yield goals, management of insects, diseases and weeds are management considerations often not addressed in an advertisement. These come in addition to grazing and haying management requirements. Investigate these management requirements and budget accordingly in your planning process.

There may be other factors that should also be taken into consideration depending upon your goals, but by completing this homework assignment you will be well on your way to passing the test of management.

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