Tips for Increased Forage Production


Improved Varieties Are Worth the Price

More than two decades ago, corn and soybean traits such as YieldGard and Roundup Ready were just being introduced to the market. Seed companies had been working for decades on improved varieties and hybrids, but the introduction to biotech traits forced every successful corn and soybean grower to get an updated lesson in agriculture and accounting.

On one hand, some farmers weren’t convinced these new products would perform and produce as advertised.

On the other hand, many farmers received sticker shock at the price of these new corn varieties.

The most successful growers evaluated the situation – looked at research yield data and pulled out the calculator to determine if the increased “investment” in the new products would pay for themselves.

Before long, most farmers realized that the higher upfront costs of improved products would more than pay for themselves at harvest time.

The hay and pasture industry has followed a similar path, only at a slower rate. Sure, the only biotech traits in forages are found in alfalfa, but rapid advances in forage development has led to improved varieties of many grasses and legumes that are far superior to older varieties.

Just as farmers began to accept improved corn and soybean varieties two decades ago, farmers are increasingly realizing the value of new improved forages. Many new varieties of alfalfa, grasses, clovers and forage sorghums can out-yield older varieties by 20% or more. Just put a pen to paper. Is a new variety of alfalfa or orchardgrass that costs $5 more per acre worth it? Well, those new forage varieties may yield an additional ton of dry matter per acre. Over the life of that forage stand – lets say four years – that stand could yield 4 additional tons per acre compared to an older variety.

Furthermore, many new forage products have significantly increased digestibility that results in better animal performance. For example, BMR forage sorghums and sorghum x sudangrass hybrids can be 50% more digestible than conventional hybrids.

Is that major yield and quality increase worth slightly increased seed cost? You bet it is.

Basic Forage Management

Soil pH and Fertilitly: The pH scale runs from 1 to 14, with 1 being exceptionally acidic and 14 being exceptionally alkaline. Most soils are between 4.5 and 8.5. Soils in the eastern half of the country tend to be acidic while soils in the High Plains and West are often the opposite. There are always exceptions.

Why is pH important for forage stands? Quality forages generally perform best in a neutral soil pH (6.5 to 7.0). At a neutral pH level, forages can best utilize the nutrients and minerals in soil. When the soil is overly acidic or alkaline, the plants aren’t capable of absorbing many of nutrients. A neutral soil pH does many things, including:

  • Allowing grasses and legumes to perform at their optimal level, producing more leafy growth, which can provide more quality grazing forage and provide more yield.
  • Allowing plants to maintain health, which can result in plants living longer and performing better in adverse weather conditions.
  • Providing optimal growing conditions, which often allows grasses to out-compete weeds, so forage managers have fewer weed challenges and herbicide costs.
  • Allows forages to absorb more vital minerals in the soil, which then increases the overall quality of the forage.
  • Lime neutralizes acid.

Get a soil test. The results will indicate how much lime must be applied to reach the ideal soil pH for the your soil type and desired forage. Applying lime to acidic fields is the best money a forage manager can spend. Alfalfa, for example, needs a minimum soil pH of 6.3 at planting time. Otherwise, the field can suffer from poor yields it’s entire life. Lime can take up to six months to fully dissolve into the soil and correct soil pH, so it is beneficial to take a soil test and apply lime, if needed, far in advance of planting.

Soils with overly alkaline soils can create a greater challenge. Consult with your local agronomist on options to lower soil pH. Sometimes, if the soil is too alkaline, a forage manager’s best option is to select a alkaline-tolerant forage.

Just remember, creating the ideal soil pH is more important than fertilizer. You can fertilize often, but if the soil pH is too low or too high, the plants won’t be able  to use much of that fertilizer, and the fertilizer will be lost or used to promote weed growth.

Fertilizer Course 101: Fertilizer is made up of three basic minerals – nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K, also called potash). Fertilizer analysis is always given in that order – N, P, K. For example, 10-10-10, is a common fertilizer. The numbers indicate the percentage of each mineral in that bag. So if a 50-lb bag is 10-10-10, there is 10 percent of each mineral in that bag. That would mean a 50-lb bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer has 5 pounds each of N, P and K. A ton of DAP, which has a mineral composition of 18-46-0 comprises 360 lbs of N, 920 lbs of P, 0 lbs of K.

What is important about N, P and K? Just remember this simple saying, “Up, down, and all around.” The following explanation simplifies some of the benefits of each mineral.

  • N promotes increased upward growth – leaf growth. N can also increase protein levels and creates darker green leaves.
  • P promotes downward growth – roots. Plants are only as healthy as their roots.
  • K promotes all around health, including increased winter hardiness.

A soil test will indicate how many pounds of each mineral are needed for optimal forage growth. It’s beneficial to apply smaller amounts of fertilizer more often, rather than one giant application, especially for nitrogen. For example, applying half of a field’s fertilizer needs in the spring and the other half in late summer is better than applying everything at once. Forages can only use nutrients so fast. Often, one large fertilizer application will result in much of the fertilizer being dissolved by rain or ground water and leaching out. Fast-growing annual forages especially benefit from smaller, more frequent, fertilizer applications.

Harvesting and Grazing: Forages can be much more productive if harvested correctly, whether by animal or machine. Here are a few tips to consider when harvesting forages:


  • When grazing, practice rotational grazing, if possible. Even splitting total pasture space into two sections and moving animals back and forth can result in better forage products. When forages have the opportunity to “rest” (repair themselves after harvest without continuous damage being made to the plant), they have shown to have healthier root systems and, therefore, produce higher yields and are more resistant to drought and disease. Ideally, according to numerous university studies, pasture forages can hit optimal performance if they are allowed to rest for four times longer than they are grazed. Therefore, a four-field rotation would be ideal.
  • Talk with your local CHS agronomist about proper harvest height. Some forages perform better when grazed or cut higher on the stem.
  • Harvest forages prior to heading/blooming. The best combination of yield and quality takes place when the plants are still in a vegetative state, rather than reproductive state.