“Forages represent the edible parts of plants, other than separated grain, that can provide feed for grazing animals or that can be harvested for feeding,” according to a N.C. Cooperative Extension guide written by Miguel S. Castillo, Paul Mueller and James T. Green Jr.
Forage crops grow well in North Carolina due to our diverse and suitable climate. Forage crops fall under two categories— legumes and grasses — and there are many species of each category. I would like to focus on the impact that legume forage crops can have on livestock and how the various kinds of legumes can benefit the soil for future crops.
A few forage legumes that can be seen locally include alfalfa, several types of clover, vetch and lespedeza.
Legumes are more beneficial for livestock that are ruminants such as goats, cattle and lambs. They provide more important nutrients to the grazing animals. Legumes are beneficial for soils, primarily as a result of a special trait that legumes possess — the ability to form a mutually beneficial relationship with certain kinds of good bacteria in the soil.
This process causes enlarged growths called nodules to form on the roots of the legume, and inside the nodules, atmospheric nitrogen gas is converted into a form of nitrogen that can be used by the legume crop for its growth and development. This naturally occurring process is of great economic value to the farmer because less commercial (synthetic) nitrogen needs to be purchased. It’s also beneficial for our soil and water because of the decreased likelihood of soil and water pollution.
Another benefit of the legume is its great value as a cover crop. It is very bad for the soil to be bare during the offseason, such as after the grain or fiber crop has been harvested. Soil that is not protected during the offseason can become compacted, and also harmed in other ways that lead to reduced soil quality.
As a result, the crop has much more difficulty producing. When weak and shallow, the crop cannot absorb enough water and soil nutrients (such as phosphorus and potassium) to grow and develop properly. An additional benefit of cover crops is that they are becoming a very effective alternative way of control pests (insects, diseases and weeds), to avoid having to use costly and environmentally damaging pesticides.
Do some research on your farm to see which type of legume crop will be most beneficial for the other crops you are trying to grow in rotation in that same field.
Forage crops are often grazed, but they also can also be stored for later use, when pasture grazing is less available. Hay is the common way of storing forage crops — be sure to keep the bales in a dry location.
“Re-wetting events encourage growth of fungi and microbes that due to respiration processes have the potential to increase the temperature (and decrease the quality) of the moist plant tissue,” according to the Cooperative Extension. This is a risk because spontaneous combustion can occur and can burn your storage facility down.
When allowing animals to graze directly on forage crops, watch them closely to make sure they do not bloat and make sure that the amount of animals on the pasture is not over or under the amount suitable for the forage available. For any more information, please contact the Richmond County Cooperative Extension office at 910-997-8255.
Kelsey Stutts is a student at N.C. State University and an intern for the Richmond County Cooperative Extension.