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Handy Hints: Know your options when it comes to forage crops

Louise Hartley speaks to ProCam agronomist Alex Silverwood about five of the most popular forage crops in the UK.


Home-grown feeds can prove to be a cost effective part of a mixed forage diet, but with many different options available it can be tricky to decide which one is best for you.

Mixed forages can help increase intakes and ensure optimum rumen stability, improved feed use and individual animal performance. The challenge lies in understanding what the best options are and how they fit into rotations.


ProCam agronomist Alex Silverwood says: “Forage crops can usually be fairly easily incorporated into your cropping system and more and more dairy, beef and sheep farmers are seeing their benefit.


“There is a vast opportunity for UK farmers to exploit the use of home-grown forages and reduce their cost of production, the tricky part is deciding which one is best for you,” adds Mr Silverwood.

Forage maize

For high performing dairy and beef herds maize has rapidly grown in popularity in recent years, but it is not the perfect solution for all producers, explains Mr Silverwood.


“The limiting factor with maize is the number of heat units needed to mature the crop. Fields planted with maize should ideally be south facing and growers should try and avoid high altitude sites.


“About 200 metres above sea level is really the cut-off point but higher sites have been successful if they get the required heat units.


Light, drier soil type is preferred and it is important to avoid heavy, poorly drained fields especially where there are frost pockets or a heavy weed problem exists.”


The advantages of maize include relatively low production costs, the simplicity of a single cut harvest and the opportunity for increased forage intakes, says Mr Silverwood.


“Maize has a fairly high dry matter and this combined with its high energy content and consistent forage quality mean it can boost animal performance, such as higher milk yields or faster liveweight gains.”


Drilling and sowing

  • Sow in mid-April to mid-May
  • Precision drill 106,000 seeds/hectare (43,000 seeds/acre)

Yield and feed quality

  • Average DM yield between 15-18 tonnes/ha (6-7t/acre)
  • Average fresh yield between 45-54t/ha (18-21t/acre)
  • DM 30-35 per cent
  • Crude protein 9.5 per cent
  • Digestibility value 75D
  • Metabolised Energy 11.5MJ/kg DM

Growing costs

  • £1,155/ha (£465/acre)
  • Fresh weight £28/t
  • Dry Matter £100/t

Source: ProCam

Fodder beet

Fodder beet

Fodder beet is a useful alternative forage due to its ability to grow well in most regions.


Mr Silverwood says: “Fodder beet can thrive on a wide range of soils but grows best on light to medium, free draining land.


“A soil pH of 7 is the target and good accessibility is vital for the heavy harvesting machinery required.”


Drilling and sowing

  • Sow in March to end April
  • Direct drilling
  • 100,000 seeds/ha (40,000 seeds/acre)

Average dry matter yield

  • 13-15t/ha (5-6t/acre)
  • Average fresh yield 80-90t/ha (32-36t/acre)
  • DM content 12 to 19 per cent
  • Crude protein 12 to 13 per cent
  • Digestibility value 78D
  • Metabolised energy 12.5 to 13.5 MJ/kg DM 

Growing Costs

  • £1,460/ha
  • Fresh weight £16/t
  • Dry Matter £115/t

Stubble turnips

Stubble turnip is a good alternative to fodder beet, particularly as most crops can be grazed in situ, says Mr Silverwood.


“Because they are grazed in the field, a free draining light loam or brash with a pH of 6.5 is ideal to minimise potential damage to the soil. Crops should be sown about 12 to 14 weeks before they are utilised,” he advises.


“Stubble turnips are a fast growing catch crop which can be used either as an autumn or winter feed and are ideal for finishing lambs and summer buffer feeding dairy cows.


“They are economical to grow, have flexible sowing options and can help reduce winter feed costs considerably.” 

Drilling and sowing

  • Sow in May to June or July to August
  • Direct drilling
  • 5kg/ha (2kg/acre) drill rate
  • 8kg/ha (3kg/acre) for broadcast

Yield and feed quality

  • Average dry matter yield 3.5-5t/ha (1.5-2t/acre)
  • Average fresh yield 38-45t/ha (15-18t/acre)
  • DM content: 8 to 9 per cent
  • Crude protein: 17 to 18 per cent mainly leaves
  • Digestibility value: 68-70D
  • Metabolised energy: 11MJ/kg DM

Growing Costs

  • £305/ha (£123/acre)
  • Fresh weight £5/t
  • Dry matter £66/t

Wholecrop wheat

A good alternative to maize for producers in less favourable areas is wholecrop wheat, says Mr Silverwood.


“Wholecrop can be grown, harvested, stored and fed using existing equipment and facilities on most grassland farms.


“It is best when stored in a clamp or ag-bag, but can also be baled and wrapped. Many cost comparisons are made with a huge range of variables but consistently fermented wholecrop forages are shown to compare favourably against other conserved forages including maize and grass silage.”


Fermented wholecrop can be harvested from 35 to 55 per cent DM, giving a three week harvest window (useful if relying on a contractor), but for best results a higher dry matter should be targeted, says Mr Silverwood.


“A dry matter of 45 per cent should be the aim for fermented wholecrop. Below this starch yield may drop due to starch being laid down fairly late in grain development. Above 60 per cent DM fermentation is less reliable, and at more than 70 per cent DM the chopper must have a properly adjusted primary processor to make sure the grain will be broken down fully in the rumen.


“Whether growing for wholecrop or grain, maximum starch yield is the target and crops should be managed intensively. Crops should be fed to reach their potential so investing in good weed and disease control programmes will always be cost effective,” he adds.

  • Drilling dates, yields and cost vary widely from farm to farm
Forage rye

Forage rye

Forage rye is another increasingly popular forage option grown primarily for its ability to deliver very early grazing in the early spring. It is therefore essential to make sure the right field is selected, says Mr Silverwood.


“A weed-free sheltered, well drained field is ideal for forage rye, and a southerly facing aspect can help increase yields. Although the crop will grow on a very wide range of soil types, it is best to avoid very exposed or poorly drained fields.


“One of forage rye’s advantages is it can provide winter sheep keep or allow early turnout to reduce over-wintering costs. This earliness also allows flexible sowing options after maize or cereals,” says Mr Silverwood.


“It can also be zero grazed, big baled and can help mop up residual nitrogen and prevent soil erosion.”


Good seedbed preparation will always pay dividend with forage rye, adds Mr Silverwood.


The seedbed should be reasonably firm and well consolidated and a seed rate of between 160 to 185kg/ha (65 to 75kg/acre) is usually adequate under most circumstances.


The seed should be drilled to a depth of 3.5 to 5cm maximum and direct drilling will eliminate soil disturbance and also give a much firmer footing for the stock in the spring.


Drilling and sowing

  • Sow in September to October via direct drill
  • Drill rate of 125-185kg/ha (75kg/acre)

Yield and feed quality

  • Average DM yield of 5-6t/ha (2-2.5t/acre)
  • Average fresh yield of 20-24t/ha (8-9t/acre)
  • DM: 25 per cent
  • Crude protein: 11 to 12 per cent
  • Digestability value: 67D
  • Metabolised energy: 10MJ/kg DM

Growing costs

  • £339/ha (£137/acre)
  • Fresh weight £12/t
  • Dry Matter £78/t

Feeding forage crops

  • Whatever forage crop you choose, recommended inclusion rates should be between 35 to 50 per cent of total dry matter intake, advises Mr Silverwood.

“Access to straw or hay is also very important to provide the right level of dietary fibre in rations and a good water supply is essential too.


“With exceptionally high energy contents, acidosis and the resulting laminitis can be a problem and occasionally over-feeding can cause goitre and blood anaemia. But provided rations are well balanced and there is adequate access to enough fibre, few problems should be experienced.”


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