Harvesting Drought Stressed Soybeans for Hay

With much of the country affected by drought conditions this summer, many grain producers are facing the problem of low grain yields while many livestock producers are experiencing hay shortages and may be seeking alternatives for winter feed. One possible option is to harvest drought damaged crops or crop residues that are not usually used as forage for hay or silage.

In Kentucky, drought-stressed soybean crops with low producing grain yields may produce a substantial yield of high quality forage. If harvested in a leafy stage before the leaves start to yellow, soybean hay averages 12-15% protein and 55-60% TDN. Many factors should be taken into consideration before deciding to harvest drought-stressed soybeans for forage. It is important to consider the value of the soybean grain yield versus the forage yield. Understand the feeding quality and nutritive value along with current livestock needs. Pesticides that have been applied to the crop can negatively affect animals. Certain pesticides have no restrictions while others have recommended waiting periods after the last application for safe feeding, and others make the crop unsafe for forage use after any application. Be sure to read pesticide labels before deciding to harvest soybeans crops for forage. Last, soybeans may cause bloat. Mixing rations with grass hay or stockpiled pastures will reduce this risk. Talk to your county agent about the option of harvesting drought-stressed crops for forage.

Harvesting soybean forage for silage is preferred over baling it as dry hay because ensiling retains more dry matter during harvest and storage. However, it is possible to make high quality hay from soybeans in the R3 to R5 growth stages. There are lots of leaves at these stages and the pods are less likely to shatter during mowing and raking operations. Use a roller-type mower conditioner set to lay the hay in a wide swath and leave about 4 inches of stubble. When dry, slowly and gently rake the swath into a windrow in the morning when humidity levels are higher to avoid leaf loss. Invert the windrows after several hours of good drying conditions and bale in the early evening to avoid further leaf loss. Make sure to contact your crop insurance adjuster before cutting any drought damaged soybeans.