Poet Robert Burns said it best, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
This line, adapted from his poem “To a mouse,” could apply to farmers’ cropping plans during a year with hail, wind, not enough rain, too much rain or harmful temperature extremes. Weeds, insects and plant diseases can also take their toll.
Over the years I’ve worked with farmers who have seen crops decimated by every one of the previously cited problems. Some issues were widespread; others were highly localized. Sometimes half a field will be ravaged by armyworms, while the other half barely one. Several years ago a severe wind storm hit Miner Institute in northeastern New York, ripping up 100-year old trees and flattening corn fields. Yet a homeowner less than half a mile away had no damage at all. None of these events were expected nor planned for – they just happened.
So what to do?
It’s mid-summer and it might be obvious that your forage crops won’t yield either the quantity or quality of forage to feed your livestock in the coming year. And in many cases – especially with anything weather-related – the crop disaster affecting you is also affecting your neighbors. Therefore they won’t have a crop surplus, which probably means that it’s going to be a “seller’s market” for forages.
When a weather-related disaster occurs, get professional help as soon as possible to evaluate the extent of damage and help you determine what to do. Sometimes the situation isn’t nearly as dire as it appears.
About 10 years ago, a severe hailstorm carved a path through the Champlain Valley, pounding corn fields in the late milk or early dough stage and far from the ideal harvest time for silage. In one way it was a typical hailstorm: One field was in terrible shape while a field a quarter mile away was untouched. But this hailstorm was different in that it was driven by a wind so strong that the hail punched hundreds of inch-diameter holes through the vinyl siding on one of the farmer’s barns. The worst-affected corn fields had almost all of the leaves stripped from the plants, forming a solid green mat on the ground – the farmer could walk from one end of the field to the other without getting soil on his shoes.
The question farmers were asking: Should we chop what’s left of the crop immediately or should we wait, and if we wait, for how long? The afternoon after the storm several agronomists (including myself) converged on the area for a field meeting with the affected farmers, and after looking at several affected fields our recommendation was to do nothing at that time, to wait and see how the crop responded. That was because while the leaves were mostly gone, the stalks were still green and we thought (hoped) that there may be enough photosynthesis to keep the plant alive – and the kernels on the ears continuing to add starch.
Most farmers followed our advice (perhaps partly because doing nothing is easier than doing something) and were glad they waited since in most affected fields the ears did continue to develop and mature. When the farmers eventually harvested the crop yield, losses were less than they expected, and silage quality was remarkably close to normal. Losing 50 percent of the leaves in a corn field in the early dough stage would be expected to reduce silage yields by 20 percent to 25 percent – certainly not an appealing prospect but not a complete disaster. Also, some leaves were tattered by the hail but remained on the plant and continued to do their job even if not as efficiently as normal.
Options for supplemental forage
For farmers growing corn both for grain and for silage, during a year of reduced yields the easiest and most economical option is to harvest more (or all) the crop for whole-plant silage. During a forage shortage, the value of the corn crop as silage is almost always higher than if it’s harvested for grain. I’d also recommend harvesting the crop for silage at the recommended stage of maturity instead of harvesting it for grain and then trying to make use of the stover. Some stover is lost during grain harvest, and what’s left is very difficult to preserve either as baled stover or ensiled as “stalklage.” There are about six bushels of corn grain in a ton of silage, and to a livestock farmer who’s short of forage, six bushels of corn are less valuable than a ton of corn silage.
WARNING: Some herbicides used in soybean grain production may not be cleared for use on soybeans harvested for forage, regardless of whether the crop is fed fresh or ensiled. Check the label of the herbicide(s) used before you head for the field with the mower, including noting any required intervals between herbicide application and harvest. If your soybean crop appears to have a high grain yield potential, you probably should harvest it for grain, but if the crop has been weatherdamaged or there’s a good chance it won’t mature in time for grain harvest, then soybean silage is a reasonable option. (Note that the prior discussion is for grain-type soybeans, not the forage soybeans you sometimes see advertised in farm magazines, often promoted as deer browse. Forage soybeans are much higher yielding than grain-type varieties, but research at Miner Institute has found them to have significant quality shortcomings as dairy forage.)
Another source of emergency forage is whole-plant soybean silage harvested at the “green pod” stage – when seeds completely fill the pod, but before the leaves start to turn yellow and die. At this time the soybean plant has reached its maximum dry matter yield, with much of the value in the leaves, so even if pod formation is poor the crop can still be fairly high in quality. Note the word “fairly:” Soybean silage has about the same forage quality as early-bloom alfalfa but probably isn’t quite as palatable. Experience suggests that soybean silage is best if fed as a modest portion of the forage ration, not as the main forage.
If everything goes right, plan on about 18 percent crude protein and 45 percent NDF, but rely on forage analysis for ration-balancing. Yields vary widely depending on weather, plant population and the maturity group of the soybean, but farmer experience in the Northeast suggests 2.5 to 3 tons of dry matter per acre. In most cases the crop will have to be windrowed and wilted before chopping at 30 percent to 35 percent DM.
Drilling oats in late summer is another emergency crop option, one that works better in longer-season areas – Pennsylvania rather than Maine. Not that summer-seeded oats won’t work in northern areas, but hard frost often arrives before the oats have a chance to produce a meaningful yield of forage. Yields typically range from 2 to 6 tons of dry matter depending on variety, seeding rate and fertility, with the higher yields in longer-season areas.
Use a tall-growing oat variety – a forage-type oat would even be better. Don’t delay in ordering seed, because by mid-summer oat supplies are often limited. Use 90 to 100 pounds of seed per acre, and don’t seed a perennial crop such as alfalfa with the oats since chances are poor that the perennial would survive over winter. Recommendations for Pennsylvania are to drill oats any time from early August through mid-September, but if you live in New York or New England you should plant no later than mid-August. Think twice about summer-drilled oats if soil conditions are unusually dry since they may sit there for weeks before germinating, and don’t even think about broadcasting them.
Don’t worry about weed control since you can harvest the weeds with the oats. Most broadleaf weeds harvested pre-bloom have decent forage quality. Harvest when the oats are in the boot stage, but if you have to harvest slightly earlier to avoid a hard frost that’s OK – you’ll be trading yield for quality. An application of manure worked into the soil just prior to planting should increase yield, but don’t overdo the manure rate because the crop can accumulate a lot of nitrates during fall growth. If you ensile the crop, be sure to use a silage inoculant and wait several weeks or more before feeding the silage. Use of a silage inoculant is strongly recommended because by late in the season the number of naturally occurring fermentation bacteria will be much lower than earlier in the growing season.
Let them eat grass
Don’t ignore a high-quality forage crop that you may already be growing – grass! Late in the growing season many farmers tend to forget about their grass fields. If your forage grass is timothy this might be a good decision because it often goes dormant when the soil warms up, but some grass species including ryegrass and tall fescue make excellent fall growth.
Some years ago, we seeded a pasture at Miner Institute to a mix of tall fescue and several other pasture species. We were amazed at how much growth this field made during the fall, most of it tall fescue. It provided excellent pasture but the crop was so heavy that if the land wasn’t so stony and uneven it could have been mowed and chopped for silage or made into round bale silage. Both yield and protein content will be improved by a topdressing of liquid or slurry manure or a modest rate of nitrogen, perhaps 50 pounds of N per acre.
When disaster – or what appears to be a disaster – strikes your farm, first get professional advice. Rely on the experience of others. Consider your options, including costs and returns, and the impact that these options will have on your overall farm operation.