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When dry weather strikes during summer, many Missouri farmers consider harvesting drought-damaged soybeans for hay or silage. Soybeans are a good alternative or emergency source of livestock feed if managed correctly. A few tips on how to handle soybeans for forage are offered below.
Ideally, soybean hay should be harvested when 50 percent of the pods have immature beans. In practice, soybeans can be cut for forage at any stage from the time the pods start forming until the beans are almost fully developed. Quality of soybean hay is variable but typically contains 16 to 19 percent crude protein, and 50 to 55 percent TDN if harvested when 50 percent of the pods have immature beans. Once leafdrop starts, forage quality drops rapidly and soybeans probably should not be harvested for forage after this point.
A common problem with soybean hay is that the immature beans dry slowly in the pods and often mold inside the hay. Crimping the hay with a mower conditioner will make the drying more even, but the pods are still the slowest drying part of the plant. Waiting to bale until the pods dry fully will also reduce this problem, though more leaves will be lost. Chopping soybeans for silage will minimize this problem.
Another problem with soybean hay is that it does not weather well when stored outside. Large round bales of soybean hay when left unprotected from the rain will deteriorate much more rapidly than grass hay. It is common to lose 50 percent of the forage to weathering if the hay is left unprotected. Storing soybean hay in a well-drained and covered stack or in a barn is imperative.
Often, soybean hay is stemmy and may be refused by livestock. Typically, 10-20 percent of soybean hay is wasted during feeding due to the coarse stems. If soybeans are harvested for silage, or if soybean hay is chopped in a tub grinder, cattle will eat almost all of it. However, the stem contains high levels of fiber and low amounts of digestible nutrients. It may be more economical to simply feed more hay and let the cows leave the stems.
A word of caution: soybeans treated with many herbicides cannot be used for livestock feed. If in doubt, read the label. Herbicides that prohibit feeding of soybean hay or silage to livestock are Assure II, Blazer, Canopy, Canopy XL, Classic, Command, Fusilade, Lasso Micro-Tech, Linex, Lorox, Pinnacle, Pursuit, Scepter, Select, Squadron, Storm and Tri- Scept. Roundup ready soybeans treated with Roundup can be harvested for hay or silage unless the Roundup was used as a harvest aid. Because the restrictions on herbicide labels change frequently, be sure to read the label of any herbicide applied to soybeans before harvesting for forage.