Do I have to graze catch and forage crops or can I bale them?

Cover crops are a popular topic this season and can provide a valuable source of forage amidst the current fodder situation.

Many tillage farmers will be familiar with sowing catch crops under GLAS (Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme) and a certain percentage of tillage farmers count catch crops as part of their routine soil management plan.

However, sowing these crops as a source of fodder may be a new ball game for many.

One thing that may be turning tillage farmers off sowing these crops – as a source of animal feed – is the weather and the uncertainty of damage that may be done to the ground if animals graze these crops.

Some forage crops can be ensiled in a pit or baled and this may make the opportunity more attractive to farmers.

AgriLand spoke to John Enright from DLF Seeds about some of the options available to farmers for ensiling.

According to John, Westerwold ryegrass (Westerwolds) is among one of the most common options. This would be his top pick for cost/kg of dry matter (DM). It is a fast-growing, bulky crop and has the ability to produce 7t/ac (fresh weight) or 1.89t of DM/ac.

Italian ryegrass (1.35t of DM/ac) and forage rye (2.25t of DM/ac) are also ideal for ensiling, zero-grazing or grazing. He added that while forage rape can be baled or ensiled, it is not ideal for this crop.

“Westerwolds is the best option in terms of cost and cost/kg of DM. It has the potential to grow the most amount of forage in that short window that farmers have,” John explained.

Avoiding volunteers in following tillage crops

Something that makes farmers cautious about growing some of these crops is the appearance of volunteers in succeeding tillage crops. However, volunteers are easily avoided once crops are not allowed go to seed.

Any of these crops should be harvested before they go to seed. The crop should then be sprayed with glyphosate once regrowth occurs.

“Farmers cannot let Westerwolds go to seed. If you put in your crop in the next week to 10 days, you’ll be anticipating a harvest date around late-September or early-October.”

John emphasised that “it’s critical that you don’t let it go to seed” to avoid volunteers in future tillage crops.

The last thing you want is to have a solution for the dairy farmer and create a problem for the tillage farmer down the road.

Potential for growth

Westerwolds is a short-term crop and is ideal for an over-winter crop. If it’s sowed in the coming days, it should be ready for harvest by the end of September or early October in average weather conditions. If desired, the crop could be grazed up until March before spring barley is planted.

Italian ryegrass is a longer-term project. If farmers have the ground for two to three years, Italian ryegrass is very suitable. The first crop produced will be low in fibre. However, farmers will have a crop that can be baled.

After this, farmers can get three to four cuts per year from Italian ryegrass in the first two years. John explained that there might be a third season in the crop if it’s managed well.

Forage rye is also a good option. It has great potential to provide bulk and large volumes of DM.

While crops like forage rape can be baled, this is not an ideal practice as these crops have a low DM content. Forage rape has an average DM content of 12-13%, highlighting that almost 90% of the bale would be water.

Forage rape provides a higher fresh yield than the other forage crops mentioned above, but is more suited to grazing in-situ or zero-grazing. Some farmers ensile stubble turnips, but this crop is also best suited to grazing in most situations.

Seed availability

Seed availability is the next thing that will influence which crop you grow.

“Seed availability across all seed is becoming an issue, as the drought is having similar effects across Europe.

“Farmers need to be making decisions now – rather than waiting another week or two – or without doubt they will be disappointed,” John added.