Soybean School: Growing soys for dairy forage

When winter kill makes it tough to grow alfalfa, what can dairy producers turn to for a protein source for milking cows? Believe it or not, forage soybeans may be a fit.

That choice is gaining popularity with dairy farmers in eastern Ontario. “It’s hard to beat good alfalfa from a protein-grown-on-the-farm standpoint, but the forage soybeans are coming in a very close second,” says MacEwen Agricentre agronomist Clare Kinlin.

On this episode of RealAgriculture’s Soybean School, Kinlin explains that many dairy farmers in the region struggle to establish high-yielding alfalfa stands, especially on flat, clay ground. Undaunted, resourceful producers have sought alternatives and over the past five years many have found success growing and feeding forage soybeans.

“We’re growing forage. We’re not growing a grain crop and that’s a mindset we have to get through our heads,” says Kinlin. He notes that the first big difference when growing grain versus forage is variety selection. In this region, growers typically plant grain varieties with a 0.8 to 1.2 maturity rating, but for forage, a longer-season soybean is required— 2.7 to 3.2 maturity.

But longer doesn’t always mean better when it comes to forage, notes Kinlin. “Some are really good for forage and some are just like cutting trees… you need to find a good balance between maturity and palatability.” (Story continues after the video.)

When it comes to establishing soybean forage stands, high seeding rates are required. Typically, farmers seed 190,000 to 205,000 seeds per acre (compared to 160,000 to 170,000 for grain). Many growers solid seed, but 15-inch rows are a strong choice because they allow growers to travel through fields to apply disease-controlling fungicide.

Kinlin notes that the high populations and highly fertile fields makes white mould control mandatory for dairy producers in the region — they need to be prepared to spray twice and spray early.

Dairy producers have also learned forage soybean harvest comes early with August 20 to 25 — as soon as flowering is complete — being the optimum timing window. “You can set your clocks to it,” says Kinlin. At harvest, green, wet plants need to lay two to three days in good August drying conditions before moving to bunk storage.

Kinlin  says dairy producers in his area typically harvest between 4 to 5 tones of dry matter per acre (12 to 14 tonnes as feed value). “We have seen it as high as 8.5 but as low as 3 depending on the variables.”

Click here for more Soybean School episodes.

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