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Using Buckwheat for Hay
While most often harvested for grain, fast-growing buckwheat also offers a source of forage when conditions present limited feed supplies and an extremely short growing season.
“Buckwheat is a particularly good fit for producers who typically plant crops in the spring for forage but, for some reason, are prevented from a timely planting,” says Thomas Bjorkman, horticulturist at Cornell University.
“Because buckwheat likes warm growing conditions, you can plant it in June and July in the northern tier of states,” he says. “Six weeks later, you can harvest a forage similar in quality to a mix of grass and alfalfa hay.”
Buckwheat’s rapid growth also presents flexible cropping options. “If there’s soil moisture left after harvesting either winter or spring wheat, you’ll still have time to grow buckwheat,” Bjorkman says. “If buckwheat is planted in June for late-August harvest, then oats or triticale can be direct-drilled afterward for fall harvest.
“Buckwheat mellows the ground, creating a good seedbed for the following crop,” he continues. “It’s adaptable to diverse growing conditions and handles a lot of adversity. It’s forgiving of low soil fertility and can be grown with minimal inputs, such as 20 pounds of N following small grain.”
strengths and weaknesses
A strong point is buckwheat’s ability to suppress weeds. The crop tends to produce a tight canopy at as early as three weeks, effectively shading out weeds. This reduces weed competition for the subsequent crop. It also offers the added benefit of being highly attractive to bees during flowering.
One growing condition buckwheat doesn’t tolerate is soil hardpan. The plant’s relatively fine roots poorly penetrate compacted soil.
A drawback to buckwheat is its tendency to volunteer in the following crop if seeds are left to mature before harvesting. This isn’t a problem when the crop is harvested for forage, however.
The best time to harvest buckwheat for hay is during flowering, which begins 4½ weeks after planting. “The seeds begin to fill about 10 days from the start of flowering. After that, feed value starts to drop,” Bjorkman says. “Plants should be in full flower at harvest. That’s when there are the highest number of green leaves, and the protein is concentrated in the leaves.”
Because stems are fleshy and overall moisture content in buckwheat forage is high at harvesting, it’s hard to make dry hay from the crop. Harvesting it as haylage or baleage works best.
“Buckwheat will typically yield 1 to 1½ tons of dry matter per acre,” he notes. “On a wet basis, it can yield 3 to 4 tons per acre with a moisture content of 70%. When left to mature, the grain yield might amount to 800 to 1,000 pounds per acre.”
Cornell research shows that forage from buckwheat harvested at full bloom has a protein content similar to corn silage. Fiber and in-vitro total digestibility are similar to good-quality alfalfa.
Buckwheat hay is highly palatable to cattle, as is the standing crop for grazing. “The main concern about using buckwheat as cattle feed is that a skin rash can develop on light-color cattle if they are fed a ration greater than 30% buckwheat and the cattle are exposed to the sun,” Bjorkman says. “However, in a northern winter when sunshine is limited, this concern should be small.”