One of the more popular questions we’ve been receiving lately involves using soybeans as forage. Prior to WWII, the principal use of soybean was actually forage. Although the soybeans planted for grain are not typically bred for forage use, we can salvage the crop for said forage if need be. Before getting too carried away with the idea, check your pesticide history; many common soybean herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides have strict harvest intervals and grazing restrictions that may prohibit use as a forage at this time. Additionally, before taking action on any of the information below, consult with your crop insurance agent, animal nutritionist or veterinarian, and any NRCS/FSA programs that you may be involved in.
The next big question is “How do I decide whether to give up on the grain crop?”… a tough decision, indeed. We really want those beans to be at R5 or an earlier growth stage. If they are more mature than this, we may still be able to feed them, but processing and blending is going to be necessary. Therefore, the decision to be fed or combined should be made now or very soon. If you’re on the fence with your crop, a few random yield checks may be warranted, but likely won’t be too accurate at this stage of maturity. It’s likely best to survey fields, check for number of pods and pod fill, and use your best judgment. For more details on estimating yields, check out this Estimating Soybean Yields resource, courtesy of North Dakota State University.
Grazing may be the best option for soil health if water and fencing is available. When grazed at flowering, soybeans have high nutritive value (similar to alfalfa), palatability, and quite a few leaves. Although we are likely past flowering, as long as beans have not exceeded the R5 growth stage, grazing can still be considered. The best utilization of grazed soybeans can be achieved by strip grazing rather than simply turning animals out on an entire field. Soybean stems snap easily and animals will waste quite a lot of the crop if some type of grazing plan does not take place. Cows unfamiliar with soybeans may be choosy and it may take some time to get them interested in eating the crop. Be sure to have cattle well fed before turning out, and place a bale of grass hay in the field with them to help transition to green feed.
Another option is haying soybeans. Although it’s a pretty challenging process, it can be done. Woody stems and fast drying leaves make hay conditioning/crimping very important in order to make dry down possible as raking dry soybeans will cause leaves to crumble and fall off; the ideal moisture goal to reach long term storage is <20% moisture. If raking is necessary to merge windrows, do so within a day of cutting to avoid major leaf loss. Be aware, soybean dry down can be VERY slow. Dry soybean hay is not especially palatable and should not be fed alone, as cattle will sort off stems and bloat becomes a risk as well- using soy hay as a part of a TMR is likely the best option for feeding soybean hay.
Soybean silage, or soilage, is typically an easier option than haying. When harvested at the right maturity (R3-R5 with earlier being better), soybeans will be higher in protein than corn and small grain silages; keep in mind drought may lower overall forage quality. Target moisture for this operation will depend on storage technique but 55-65% is ideal for most cases. Ensiling will maximize palatability, reduce waste, and offer more feeding flexibility than soybean hay. The buffering capacity of soybean silage is somewhat high, and can result in poor fermentation (much like alfalfa silage), so high-quality legume inoculants are suggested to ensure proper fermentation. In fact, many experts suggest mixing chopped soybeans with corn or sorghum as they are being ensiled. If soybeans need to be ensiled alone, be sure to have a good, clean chop and also add inoculant designed for legumes. According to long-time forage expert, Dr. Bruce Anderson (UNL-retired), adding one bushel of cracked corn or 50 lbs. molasses to each ton of wet silage will aid in fermentation as well. Packing the pile properly is especially important with soylage.
There are many factors to consider before and during utilizing a failed soybean crop as feed, but if proper planning and consideration takes place, it may be right for you. Keep in mind that R3-R5 is ideal for soybean feed use, and bloat can be a potential risk when using soybeans as forage. Please be sure to check with a livestock nutritionist or veterinarian before utilizing feeds that are unfamiliar or new to you. For more info see the ‘Using Soybeans as Forage’ video clip mentioned above.