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by Dale Perkins
Livestock producers looking for methods to reduce feed costs may find forage brassicas a crop worth exploring. Brassicas fit m well with forage based production systems by extending the grazing season into December or even later. Many farmers who have traditionally barn-fed their livestock during this season are finding brassicas to be economically smart. Brassicas can reduce or eliminate the feeding of stored or purchased feed through the end of the year.
The fall grazing of brassicas, along with other production techniques such as intensive rotational grazing, stockpiled grazing, and late spring lambing has allowed Heifer Project International's Overlook Farm in Rutland, Massachusetts, to rely on forage as the sole source of nutrition for their sheep enterprise. Dairy goats, cattle, and other species of livestock have also benefited from forage brassica.
Heifer Project International (HPI) is a non-profit community development organization which works with livestock and related training, enabling families to utilize resources in sustainable ways. HPI has worked in more than 110 countries throughout the world. Overlook Farm serves as HPl's Northeast Regional Office and Learning and Livestock Center. Over 10,000 people visit Overlook Farm each year to learn about HPl's work in enabling hungry families to provide for themselves.
Following the focus of HPI project areas, the farm demonstrates ecologically sound, sustainable agricultural methods. Overlook Farm was certified organic earlier this year. An integrated approach, such as the use of forage brassica, utilizes available farm resources in providing appropriate and sustainable land stewardship. Livestock and other educational exhibits demonstrate agricultural practices similar to those that an HPI recipient in the Northeast might use.
Since Overlook is not a research facility, the farm concentrates on practical applications of appropriate limited resource production techniques rather than scientific field data.
The farm has been raising forage brassica for the past few years as a means of providing high quality grazing from early November through December for approximately thirty ewes and their lambs, two dairy cows, and six to ten dairy goats. This timing enables the flushing and breeding of the ewes without feeding them grain.
Traditionally, ewes being "flushed" are given grain just prior to and during the breeding season increasing their nutrient intake level. This increases the number of eggs the en es ovulate and in turn increases the number of lambs born as twins or triplets. December breeding of the en as means May lambing which enables lambing on lush spring pasture and warm weather.
The area of the brassica patch is also used as part of Overlook Farm's market garden and measures 3/4 of an acre. The entire market garden at the farm is two acres. These two acres are divided into thirds which are rotated between pumpkins, row crops, and cover crops.
Various methods have been used to establish brassica for fall grazing. Overlook's cultivation equipment consists of a team of draft horses, a walking plow, a horsedrawn disk-harrow and drag. A simple hand cyclone seeder is used to broadcast the seed.
In 1992 a Sorgum-Sudan grass residue and a thin layer of compost was plowed in mid-August. One half of this area was seeded with a mixture of winter rye and kale and the other half was seeded with a mixture of winter rye and forage turnips.
Animals were strip-grazed (grazing a concentrated area) on this patch with portable New Zealand-style electric fencing, beginning in early November for a couple of hours each day. The inside electric fence line was moved back six to eight feet each day, allowing increased grazing and preventing the trampling of brassica. After consuming the day's supply, the animals were moved to a mature grass pasture which had been deferred for this purpose. This grass, although low in protein and other nutrients does allow the ewes to balance their daily diet, especially their fiber intake.
An alternative method of establishing brassica is planting into existing sod pasture. Several methods can be used to do this including a no-till drill, discing, or letting animals tread the seed in. In all cases, close grazing of the existing ground cover is recommended to prevent seedling competition. The farm is also utilizing brassicas in the row-crop part of the garden this year. Farm livestock will then be utilized to clean up all the garden residue such as corn stalks, beans, etc.
Seeding rates for brassicas vary from I ½ pounds per acre for turnips to 4 pounds per acre for rape, kale, and tyfon (a cross between turnips and Chinese cabbage). Seed cost ranges from 60¢ per pound for some varieties of rape to $10.00 per pound for Forage Star Turnip, a high yielding hybrid. Garden variety brassicas generally yield less than those varieties developed specifically for forage.
Brassica's drought tolerance make it an appropriate crop in the slow, mid-summer pasture phase. Yields vary due to time of establishment, soil fertility and other factors; turnips and rape can often be grazed 60 days after planting with yields of 4 tons of dry matter per acre alter 90 days. Swedes and kale reach a maximum production after 150 to 180 days with a yield of up to 6 tons per acre. Karl Guillard of the Plant and Soils Department at the University of Connecticut has been a
key source of guidance for the Overlook Farmer staff in their work with brassicas.
It is recommended to slowly introduce livestock to brassica over a one week period when first grazing to allow adequate development of rumen microbial population. There are also some potential health problems which may result from grating livestock on brassica during breeding season. Overlook Farm, however, has experienced no known reproductive problems due to grazing these forage crops.
Another possible complication due to brassica utilization is Rape Scald, which can cause a photosensitivity reaction to the ears and face when grazing rape. Preventing this includes feeding only mature rape. Kale Anemia, Nitrate Poisoning, and Goiter can also cause problems. Nitrate Poisoning occurs mostly during drought periods and livestock need a good mineral mix and iodized salt to prevent mineral imbalances.
Although hogs can do well on grazing brassicas, it is not recommended to allow equines to graze it. As with other livestock, fiber is needed in the animal's diet in the form of roughage, such as hay or low-quality pasture. Interseeding a grain with brassica may also solve this problem. Especially with portable types, good fencing must be used to control grazing and prevent waste.
Forage brassicas offer a tremendous opportunity for excellent nutrition at a reduced cost for livestock producers in New England. Farmers looking for a cheap source of high quality feed may want to explore how brassicas could fit into their operation. They have complemented the integrated system of organic livestock and market garden production at Overlook Farm by extending the grazing season until late December.
Copyright © 1997 Ecological Agriculture Project. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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