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What Is a Forage Crop?

Corn may be grown for forage.
Sorghum is often grown as a forage crop.
Forage crops provide food for cattle.
Forage crops can be baled to make hay.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 05 December 2014
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A forage crop is grown for animals like horses and cattle to eat. They may freely graze on a pasture or have the crop cut and brought in for them in the form of dry hay or fermented silage. Such crops ensure that animals get enough nutrition, even during the season when sources of food are thin on the ground because it’s hot and dry. They can also be used to prepare animals for slaughter, or to make sure working animals are adequately nourished to be able to keep up long hours in the fields.

Numerous crops can be grown for forage including an assortment of grasses, grains, and legumes. Vetch, alfalfa, corn, and sorghum are some examples. Farmers seek out crops well-suited to the environment, considering issues like the pH balance of the soil, available water, and general temperature range. They also need to consider the specific nutritional needs of their livestock when selecting a crop, typically looking for something high-yield so their animals will get ample energy from their food.

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In the fields, a mixture of crops may be grown. Animals can graze at will to consume the forage crop, gradually eating it down. Farmers may rotate their animals through several pastures to allow the land to recover. When animals aren’t present, the soil can be conditioned and seeded to prepare another crop. For specific livestock, like grass-fed beef, the farmer may need to carefully calculate the composition of the forage crop to produce meat that will be satisfactory for consumers.

Another option is to cut the crop and store it. A forage crop can be dried in the fields and baled to make hay which can be used throughout the year, including in the harsh winter when animals may not be able to go outside and any ground cover is hidden under snow. This allows people to raise livestock in extreme climates. Silage, made by fermenting moist crops, is also an option for some livestock that allows for food storage.

Farmers selecting a forage crop can use an agricultural extension service to get information about the best crops in their areas. These services conduct research and provide advice to farmers and gardeners. Trade publications also offer information on forage and alternative crops farmers may not be considering because they are unusual or limited information about their cultivation is available. This information can help people select the optimal crop for their needs.

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