Some livestock producers are having difficulty producing adequate amounts of livestock bedding with small grains. One solution is to increase the acreage of small grains, but if producers dont have good uses for the grain, this isnt a viable solution.
Small grain trials at Iowa State University show straw yields ranging from 1.5 to 3.0 tons/acre. But, these yields are probably higher than farm production because there are no losses; the biomass from each plot is weighed and the grain weight subtracted to get a straw weight. Straw yields of current small grains are probably less than older varieties because plant heights have been reduced to reduce lodging.
Annual warm season grasses are often used as emergency forage crops, but they can also be used for bedding production. Planting rates in pounds/acre are foxtail millet 20-30, pearl millet 16-20, proso millet 15-35, Japanese millet 20-25, and sudangrass 20-35.
The following are data from the University of Minnesota. Grasses were planted June 6 and cut four times (June 21, July 9, Aug. 23, and Oct. 5) or once (Oct. 5). Total dry matter yields, in tons/acre, for the four cuts and the one cut are: foxtail millet - 2.8 & 4.1; pearl millet - 5.2 & 6.0; proso millet - 2.3 & 3.0; Japanese (barnyard) millet - 5.0 & 3.5; and sudangrass - 6.2 & 6.2. Cutting height for the first three cuts was to treat all of the crops the same and at 10 inches because regrowth of pearl millet is from leaf nodes, not the plant crown; the fourth cut and the one cut were are 2.5 inches. If several cuts are made it would be wise to leave a few inches of stubble to speed regrowth. If only one cut is made, it would be prudent to make it shortly after the heads emerge to reduce a volunteer plant problem if the manure is spread on other cropland.
The bedding would be less coarse for the four cuts than the one cut, less coarse at the higher seeding rates, and vary among the crops foxtail millet, Japanese millet, sudangrass, proso millet, pearl millet, least to most coarse.
In addition to yield, another advantage is that the producer can decide when to harvest instead of having harvest dictated by small grain maturity. An obvious disadvantage is there is no grain produced and all costs must be assigned to the bedding.
Another alternative is to plant a perennial tall grass such as reed canarygrass or switchgrass. Yields in ISU forage trials have ranged from 4 to 6 tons/acre with two harvests. In addition to yield, the perennial grass would not have to be established every year, and harvest would not be as critical as it would be with small grains. But, as with the annual grasses there would be no grain produced. Planting rates would be 8 to 12 pounds per acre. If planted in the spring oat could be used as a companion crop, but it should be removed early to reduce competition with the grass.
The perennial grasses and the annual grasses would require significant amounts (120-200 pounds/acre) of nitrogen for high yields, and for efficient use the nitrogen should be applied in split applications. Livestock manure could be used and spread between the cuttings when the other land is in corn and soybean; the grasses would utilize the nutrients in the manure very effectively.