Which forage crops offer the best quality?

Without doubt, grass has to be the first priority for feeding livestock efficiently and a commitment to selecting quality grass varieties is a route to farm profitability.

However, forage crops, such as brassicas, also play a valuable role for Irish livestock farmers; both for out-wintering or overcoming grass shortages, and just like with the grass, the selection process should also be based around quality.

Jim Gibbons, Germinal Ireland’s sales and production manager, explains that just as when selecting grass mixtures, similar consideration should be given to selecting a suitable forage crop.

There are a number of options available to farmers; however, regardless of which is the most suitable forage crop for your farming system, consideration to the quality of the crop you will yield should be part of the selection process.

According to Jim: “The starting point is to consider in advance; when you want to utilise the crop, when will the land for growing the forage crop become vacant and how many animals do you need the crop to feed?

“Once these questions have been answered, then think about what variety will allow you to reap the most from the crop.”

The most popular options for winter forage are kale, hybrid brassicas or forage rape; all of which have their own unique benefits.

Why kale might be the suitable option

Kale has the potential to give the greatest yield compared to a hybrid brassica or forage rape.

“Kale should be sown in May/June but it is worth noting the field is then out of action for a longer period of time, and so, you need to factor this into your overall grazing strategy,” Jim advises.

Again, just like with grass, Jim stresses that the attention must be given to the quality of the variety chosen and how it will feed-out.

There is a significant difference between kale varieties; as some are more suitable than others for grazing animals, while other taller varieties tend to have less leaf, are lower in quality and generally more suitable as bird cover.

When choosing a variety suitable for grazing, Jim advises that it is hard to see past Maris Kestrel kale.

“A high-quality kale variety such as Maris Kestrel will have a good leaf:stem ratio and good leaf proportion; as this is the highest quality part of the plant.

“Maris Kestrel kale, due to its high digestibility and long utilisation period, makes it most suited for cattle and sheep grazing. Animals can utilise the entire plant and it also provides a solution to overcoming late season grazing deficits.”

The multi-graze forage crop option

When the requirement is for a multi-graze brassica crop, Jim cites Redstart as the quality option here; stating that this hybrid brassica offers the highly beneficial combination of rapid growth ability and good all-year-round performance.

“It was a hugely popular choice on farms in 2018 to increase feed on farms as a result of the drought. The forage rape genes in Redstart allow the crop to grow quickly, while the kale genes deliver excellent winter hardiness.”

Jim advises that Redstart is mainly used as a high-energy protein crop for out-wintering cattle and sheep.

Forage rape

Finally, if forage rape is the most suited brassica for your system, the quality variety is Stego, according to Jim.

“It is a very high-yielding variety with excellent disease resistance, including mildew. The variety has extremely digestible stems, which allows complete use of the whole plant with minimal residual matter.

“Stego offers high-energy grazing for cattle and sheep for autumn and winter, and is ideal for out-wintering systems,” Jim concluded.

The main message from Jim is that when choosing a suitable forage crop, the decision must be anchored around its intended use and the quality of the feed it will yield. Many varieties of forage crops, by their nature, have a tendency to get ‘woody’, lay down lignin (considered an anti-quality component in forages) and, in general, lose their quality as they mature.

In addition, there are many key management techniques when it comes to sowing and feeding forage crops to ensure the overall health of livestock.

For more information on these management techniques, go online; or simply click here