Grow Your Own Field Crops

Exploring various field and forage crops for feeding your livestock, grass and legume regional data, and hay quality identification.

December 2017
By Steven Thomas and George P. Looby

Backyard Livestock cover

Backyard Livestock (The Countryman Press, 2017), by Steven Thomas and George P. Looby, acts as a reference for anyone who keeps animals as a sustainable food source. Laying out up-to-date information on breeding, feeding, disease prevention, housing, and management for livestock, complete with clarifying diagrams, full color photography, and a catalog of supplemental reading.

There are, in any project, economies of time, money, and land that suggest there exist practical approaches to any situation that need careful consideration before going ahead into the great unknown. Most of us involved in the production of livestock on a more limited scale do so with definitive objectives in mind, but few of us have the luxury of unlimited time, the necessary equipment, or the expertise, to devote to our projects. Once you choose to embark on a smallscale cropping program, you must commit yourself to a great deal of hard work. This can be enjoyable, but the hard facts are that we might better channel our energies in other directions.



Given that most of us small‑time livestock enthusiasts are frustrated farmers, there are additional realities we should face. On a limited number of acres, the amount of feed that can be produced will be considerably less than your livestock will need to consume. To further preserve the continuity and flavor of the original book, I have chosen to leave the author’s comments and recommendations relating to the production of certain basic field crops intact, while at the same time cautioning the reader to realize the limitations these cropping programs necessarily have.

What we are concerned with are field crops and forage crops. Field crops are those plants that are primarily grown for their seeds: corn, wheat, oats, soybeans, and even sunflowers. Forage crops are the plants or parts of plants that are used for feed before maturing or developing seeds. These forages are fed as pasture (the easiest way, because the animal does all the “harvesting” itself, so there are no harvesting, curing, or storage issues to contend with), either as hay or as silage. Forage crops are further divided into legumes and grasses.

Field Crops

Corn
Of the five types of corn, flint and dent corn are those that should be considered for feed purposes. Dent corn is the most widely grown feed corn, but flint corn, because it grows more quickly, is used in regions with shorter growing seasons. Plant the corn in rows 40 inches apart, with the seeds planted five to a hill and the hills 40 inches apart. Do not pick feed corn as you would a garden-variety sweet corn. Wait until after a good frost, when the husks are dry and the kernels firm. For small‑scale operations, hand picking is the rule, although a husking tool will make the job faster. The stalks may be saved as they will make good bedding for some types of livestock.

We feed the whole ear (and sometimes the entire plant) to the pigs. For other animals you must husk the corn and then remove the kernels from the ear with a corn sheller. A hand sheller can be purchased inexpensively from a farm supply catalog or from your local feed store. Whole corn can be fed to livestock as indicated, or it can be cracked or made into a mash and mixed with a particular feed ration. Corn, plant and all, can also be used for silage. Yield: 75 to 100 bushels per acre.



Oats
Plant oats 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart, in rows that are also 4 inches apart. Oats should be harvested in the so-called “dough” stage, when they are soft but not mushy. The grain heads should be full but not so dry that they’ll fall out. Cut with a scythe, preferably with a cradle attachment to catch and help pile up the oats, then rake into windrows and let dry for a day or two. Tie them in bundles and let them cure in the field for as long as it takes them to be thoroughly dry (2 days to 2 weeks, depending upon the weather). The grain must then be threshed (the grain separated from the plant) and winnowed (the chaff separated from the grain).

To thresh, place the grain 6 to 12 inches deep on a clean floor—or on a tarp, on a notsoclean floor—and beat the plants with a flail until the grain is separated from the plants. (A flail is a wooden rod about 5 feet long with a joint made of chain about 2/3 of the way down.) After flailing, take a pitchfork and scoop out the straw, which is good to use for bedding, being sure to shake it well and release any oats still remaining in it. Winnowing is not necessary for oats that are to be fed to rabbits, as they will husk the oats themselves, but winnowing must be carried out for all other stock. To winnow, take the oats outside on a windy day and shake them from a bucket onto a tarp while standing on a stepladder. The chaff will blow away, and the heavier oats will fall down onto the tarp. Be sure it is not too windy, or you will be sowing your domestic oats wastefully and end up losing most of them. Yield: 30 to 50 bushels per acre.

Soybeans
Soybeans are very high in protein but are somewhat less palatable to most animals than many other livestock feeds. They are grown very much like garden beans, but require a longer growing season. Plant 6 inches apart in rows that are 3 feet apart. Allow the bean to mature fully so that it is hard. Soybeans can be fed whole if the animal will eat them, or ground up and used as a component of a feed mix.

Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are a high‑protein feed that is quite easy to grow and makes excellent feed for chickens. Sow the seeds, allowing 1 foot between each plant, then let the flowers mature and go to seed. At the end of the growing season, when the seeds are fully dry, you can remove them from the flower head by rubbing it face down on ½‑inch hardware cloth. The seeds can just be fed whole, as the chickens will shell them themselves.

Wheat
Get a variety of wheat earmarked specifically for livestock feed purposes. Wheat can be sown by hand, as depicted in the famous painting by Millet, The Sower; or by use of a seed broadcaster, which can be purchased cheaply and will spread seed quite evenly as you turn the crank and walk down the plot. Harvesting of wheat is similar to oats, and threshing and winnowing of the seed is also necessary. Yield: 20 to 40 bushels per acre.



Storage
Grains can be stored in metal barrels or other covered containers to keep them free from both rodents and moisture. Make sure the seeds are dry enough before storing (10 to 15-3/4 percent moisture content) or they may get moldy.

Forage Crops

Pasture
Pasture should be managed like any other crop. If properly cared for and of adequate size, it can provide the most time‑ and labor‑efficient way of feeding livestock, though there are few regions of the country where pasture alone can provide year‑round forage for livestock. Even in the heart of Dixie, it is difficult to get more than 10 months of grazing out of any well‑managed pasture. In the northern reaches of the United States, about 6 months is a reasonably expected length of the pasture season. In the heat of summer, most pastures are of minimal value unless the acreage available is rather large and the number of animals grazing per acre is comparatively low. Midsummer droughts and excessive heat are contributing factors to poor growth of pasture grasses.

Earlier in the book it was mentioned that most grasses and legumes have preferred growing seasons. Those plant characteristics must be considered when developing a grazing plan so as not to overgraze and seriously damage the predominant plants making up the pasture. Periodic analysis of the soil is essential if one is going to return the soil those nutrients that have been taken out by the plants that have grown since the last fertilization. Your local agricultural extension agent can give you information regarding a soil test and where to send it (usually your state university). You can also visit their Web site at www.crees.udsa.gov (Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service).

Do not attempt to fool Mother Nature by planting crops that are not adapted to your region. Your results will probably be poor at best. Stick to varieties that have proved to be successful in your area, and leave the experimenting to those better able to afford it. The secret, if there is one, to producing highquality hay would be to cut it early, and elicit 100 percent cooperation from Mother Nature. For years I have looked at my mowing machine as a rainmaker, perhaps a hangover from some earlier tribal ritual. It can be the driest spring ever, but once the mower is brought out of the shed and a piece of potentially beautiful hay has been mowed, the monsoon season will follow immediately, putting a stop to all haying activities.

Harvesting
Grass, hay, and legumes should be harvested as early as possible in order to ensure the highest level of nutrients, especially protein. Suggesting this practice and achieving it are often two distinctly different things.

We have managed to be great late-June–early-­July haymakers, harvesting our crop well after the peak of nutrition has passed but when the weather is more suitable for haymaking. Commercial operations try to harvest their first crop of hay as haylage (or grass silage) where they are less dependent on the vagaries of the weather. In New England, the ideal time is late May or early June, when the feed value of the crop is at its peak. Most parttime farmers have time limitations that prevent them from synchronizing their available time, often limited to weekends, with the desired amount of sunshine. The two never seem to mesh nicely, and to my knowledge the formula for doing so has yet to be determined.

As nostalgic as it might be to revert to a slower, more leisurely pace of doing this harvesting, the realities of our lives necessitate getting the haying done in as rapid and efficient manner as possible.

Buying Machinery
In most rural and semi-rural communities, a wide variety of used machinery can usually be purchased for a reasonable cost. The purchase of a small older-­model tractor, simple in design, can start you on your way to doing some of the necessary work yourself. When investing in used machinery, consider your own inclinations carefully. Are you happiest when trying to encourage an elderly piece of farm equipment to do its thing for one more season, or does such activity work you up into a real fit of smoldering rage? Careful now—beating on that old baler with a ball peen hammer probably isn’t going to correct its malfunctioning parts.

So, if the satisfaction derived out of keeping old stuff humming along isn’t exactly your cup of tea, it’s probably better to hire an enterprising individual with a custom harvesting service to do the work for you. This way you must pay to get the job done, but you are going to have to pay, one way or another, in  any case. Take your choice.

Round Bales

Round bales are ideal for bigger operations feeding a larger number of cattle. However, the heavy bales requires specialized equipment to move them easily.

Grazing
Never overgraze pastures. If you have animals that will graze very close, such as sheep and goats, have other pasture areas available so that you can rotate them from one to another and let the worn-down sections re-grow. Don’t put your stock out to pasture too early in the spring, or the grazing will never get a good start. Check with a local feed store, nursery, or your extension agent to determine what pasture crops are most suited to your locale as well as your particular livestock needs. Good pasture (and hay) consists of a legume-grass mixture. Legumes supply protein while the grasses are high in energy. Also, the grasses will hold the soil better and prevent erosion and fill in well between the less dense legumes. Legumes also return nitrogen to the soil, while grasses and other crops deplete it.

Kale and collard greens both make good feedstuffs. These can be fed to poultry, sheep, rabbits, goats, pigs—most any livestock. They are very high in vitamins and minerals, and can even be fed to young animals, since they will not cause bloat the way many other succulent green forages might do.

Grasses and Legumes Map

Most abundant forage grasses and legumes be region (see table below)

MOST ABUNDANT FORAGE GRASSES
AND LEGUMES BY REGION

NORTH CENTRAL
AND
NORTHEASTERN


INTERMOUNTAIN

Grasses
Kentucky bluegrass
timothy
redtop
orchard
Canada bluegrass
tall oatgrass
meadow fescue
smooth brome
Sudan
ryegrass
bents
beardgrasses and bluestems

Legumes
white clover
Korean lespedeza
sweet clover
alfalfa
common lespedeza
red clover
alsike clover
hop clover
black medic
crimson clover
birdsfoot trefoil

Grasses
wheatgrass
grama
brome
galetta, tobosa, curly mequite
red clover
black medic

Legumes
alfalfa
 white clover 
 sweet clover 
 alsike clover
 

SOUTHEASTERN
SOUTH PACIFIC COAST

Grasses
Bermuda
carpet
dallis
vasey
redtop
Bahia
fescue
Rhodes

Legumes
common lespedeza
hop clover
white clover
Persian clover
black medic
spotted burclover

                                         

Grasses
fescue
brome
wild oats
Bermuda
Sudan
bluegrass
timothy
redtop
beardgrasses and bluestems

Legumes
California burclover
alfalfa
white clovers
black medic
strawberry clover

                                       

GREAT PLAINS NORTH PACIFIC COAST
Grasses
grama
wheatgrass
buffalo
brome
galleta, tobosa, curly mesquite
bluegrass, bluestem
Sudan
timothy
redtop
fescue
Rhodes
Legumes
sweet clover
alfalfa 
Grasses
ryegrass
Kentucky bluegrass
bent
red canary
orchard
meadow fescue
redtop
timothy
tall oatgrass
meadow foxtail 
Legumes
red clover
white clover
hop clover
alsike clover 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Hay
Hay is any pasture grass, or legume, or a mixture of the two, cut, then dried to about a 15 percent moisture content, and stored, either baled or loose, for winter feeding (or whenever pasture is scarce or not available). A legume/grass hay mixture is best, for the reasons outlined above, but this is not to say that you must plow up all your fields and reseed them. Recent studies have shown that a well‑fertilized field of non-leguminous grasses, properly cut and cured, will have nearly the same nutritional value as a legume/grass hay blend. This again may make it cheaper in the long run, because legumes generally have to be reseeded more often than grasses.

Secondcutting hays (because they are more tender and have less hard stems) make the best feed and less material is wasted. Most of the nutrients are concentrated in the leafy portions of the plants, so hay that is cut when the plants are most leafy, especially those from wellfertilized fields, offer the most nutrition. The table below illustrates the importance of an early cut and proper curing. It can be used as a guide, both when making your own hay or when choosing hay that is offered for sale.

 
HOW TO DETERMINE HAY QUALITY - CORNELL STUDY

            #1   Stage of growth when cut (the more mature, the more loss of nutritive value) 
  Digestible Protein Energy as T.D.N.
 a. vegetative stage 18.7% 70%
 b. bud stage  14.5% 63%
 c. bloom stage 10.2% 56%
 d. mature stage  6.4% 49%
  #2  Leafiness - important (more proteins and vitamins in leaves)
  #3   Green color - very important
 a. need 35% - 60% of original color
 b. lose color - lose 90% vitamin A
 c. one or two rains on dry hay causes loss of 40% - 60% feed value 
  #4  Compare alfalfa, a legume hay, and timothy, a grass hay, as to feeding value. Notice that the later grasses are cut, the lower the protein content. 
  Digestible Protein Energy as T.D.N.
 a. early bloom timothy 4.2% 51.6%
 b. full bloom timothy 3.2% 48.0%
 c. late bloom timothy 2.4% 47.5%
 a. leafy alfalfa 12.1% 51.1%
 b. good alfalfa  10.3% 51.1%
 c. stemmy alfalfa 8.2% 47.5%
Source: Dairy Goats, Breeding/Feeding/Management. New England Dairy Goat Industry leaflet 439, Amherst University of Massachusetts 


Silage
Silage is crops such as grasses, legumes, corn (whole plants, as well as the ears) and the like, chopped, stored, and fermented in the absence of air. After the silage is packed into the silo or other airtight container, the oxygen is used up in a short time and anaerobic bacteria produce lactic and other acids. As the acids increase, the bacteria die off; as long as no more air is permitted to enter, the process halts and the silage will keep almost indefinitely.

If you choose to incorporate it into your feeding program, silage can often be purchased at a reasonable price from neighboring farmers who may have a surplus for sale. On a very small scale, the aggravation of putting up silage yourself is hardly worth it. Of course if you want to give it a try, it can be done.

While the large silos attached to barns are most common for making silage, these are much too large for the small‑scale type of operation we are talking about. Since the most important consideration in making silage is the absence of air, any reasonably airtight container can be used. Fifty‑gallon drums are a good size and the most readily available type of container.

Since silage will begin to spoil as you use it, utilizing a number of drums will enable you to use one container at a time and not risk spoiling all your crop. Of course, any other airtight container, smaller or larger, can be employed to suit your needs. If you really get into making silage and find it affords you sufficient savings on feed costs, then you might want to construct a larger, more permanent silo. A large circular silo (square containers are used less often because of the difficulty of eliminating all the trapped air from rightangled corners) made out of corrugated steel roofing fitted with a tight top and set on a concrete slab can be made cheaply and easily. If you place an airtight door at the bottom, you can remove the silage with a shovel without worry of spoilage.

Whether you use drums or other silos, the procedure for making silage is the same. The moisture content of the material to be ensiled is very critical. It should be between 55 and 65 percent moisture (as a guide, freshly cut hay is about 75 percent moisture); too moist and it will spoil easily; too dry and it will be unpalatable to your livestock. In order to pack and ferment well, the material should be chopped. Farmers use a silage chopper, but you will have to do this by hand or use a shredder or composter if you have one. It is best to have it cut into 1/2inch lengths, or be finely chopped. Pack it tightly into your silo and then be sure to fit it with a tight cover. Every day for a week, stomp on it and press it down to exclude any trapped air. Do this until the mixture is settled. Be sure the top is on tight and you should have a minimum of spoilage. Some people add molasses as a preservative but this is not essential. Your silage should be ready in about 3 weeks.

You will always have a little spoiling where air has leaked in after you begin removing the silage. Be sure to remove any moldy or spoiled silage before feeding it, and check your batch each time you remove some to be sure there isn’t any undue spoilage.

Seeds and Fertilizing
Buy your seeds locally; these will be most adapted to your particular growing region. Check with local feed stores and, more important, your local extension agent, to determine what crops and varieties are best suited for your region.

Have your soil tested before sowing your crops, and then periodically every few years after to determine what is needed to maintain soil fertility, and the optimum growth and health of your pasture. Most state universities test soil samples for a nominal fee. They will recommend the correct amounts of chemical or organic fertilizers, depending on which you state as your preference.

More from Backyard Livestock

Livestock Disease Tables


This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Backyard Livestock by Steven Thomas and George P. Looby, published by The Countryman Press, 2017.



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