Like most things new, forage crops usually don't live up to early expectations. Initial excitement over high yield, quality or other benefits eventually is dampened when the crop's weaknesses are exposed.
So it was with Matua prairie grass, Puna chicory and cicer milkvetch. All three looked like promising new grazing crops back in the early '90s. While they've never gained the popularity that was expected, each can perform a valuable role in some forage operations.
The following is an update on each forage's strengths and weaknesses:
Matua prairie grass: A New Zealand transplant, Matua was promoted by U.S. seed marketers as a grass that could stretch the grazing season due to its ability to grow at cool temperatures. Seed companies also hailed the plant's palatability and crude protein content.
Matua has lived up to its promise in parts of the country — most notably the Southeastern and mid-Atlantic states (as far north as Pennsylvania). It also does well under irrigation in parts of the West and Southwest. But its inability to stand up to rigorous winters caused interest to fizzle quickly among graziers in the Upper Midwest.
“It was initially oversold by some not-too-scrupulous marketers,” says John Kaye, national forage consultant for Barenbrug USA. “It's probably best viewed as a complement, rather than an alternative, to traditional cool-season grasses.”
While Matua has been used successfully in rotational grazing by some dairy and beef producers, Kaye believes it's best-suited for hay or silage production.
“It does best when you just let it grow,” he says. “I think of it as a cut-and-carry grass.”
With its ability to take up nitrogen, Matua is also finding a niche as a component of nutrient management programs.
“It's a real nitrogen pig,” says Kaye, pointing to one New Zealand study where Matua utilized up to 800 units of N/acre/year. “It's perfect for dairy, hog and poultry operations with excess nitrogen to burn.”
Puna chicory: A deep-rooted plant that grows best on fertile, well-drained soils, Puna was also developed in New Zealand. It caught the attention of U.S. graziers looking for low fiber and high digestibility and trying to avoid summer slump problems common to many cool-season grasses.
Marketers touted Puna's digestibility and mineral content — both higher than alfalfa's — as a major reason to consider the crop. They also pitched reports about solid animal performance on Puna pastures — 0.6 lb/day for lambs and 2 lbs/day for dairy bulls in a New Zealand study.
Even so, several factors limited its widespread appeal in the U.S. For starters, stand life is relatively short.
“Figure on two, three, maybe four years tops,” says Matt Sanderson, USDA research agronomist at University Park, PA.
Overblown claims about its ability to withstand drought may also have soured some growers.
“It is a little more drought-tolerant than other cool-season grasses,” Sanderson says. “But it still needs some moisture to produce. It's not the plant that's going to pull you out of a severe drought.”
Management can be tricky. Bolting (rapidly growing stems) in the second year of a stand is a downside.
“If you don't stay on top of it, it can get away from you in a hurry,” says Sanderson. “You end up with a mass of stemmy plants, high in fiber and low in digestibility, that cattle just aren't going to want to eat.”
For that reason, Sanderson says beginning graziers should probably forego Puna. Experienced grass managers, though, might find the plant fills a niche.
“If you're looking for a highly productive forage for a couple of years before returning to a more traditional grass-legume pasture, Puna might be worth a closer look,” he says.
Cicer milkvetch: Avoiding bloat problems associated with alfalfa and clovers sparked grazier interest in cicer milkvetch.
A perennial legume with a creeping root system, cicer performs well in areas where other legumes often don't survive.
“It's fairly tolerant of semi-arid and high-pH soils,” notes Bruce Anderson, Nebraska extension forage specialist. “It's also very winter hardy. And since its quality declines slowly as it matures, it works well for stockpiling.”
The crop has plenty to offer quality-wise. Cicer grown in a University of Vermont study last year tested 20% crude protein (similar to alfalfa) and 86% for digestibility (higher than alfalfa).
“We also saw a relative feed value of around 195,” says Heather Darby, Vermont extension agronomist. “It impressed us.”
Slow stand establishment was a concern with some of the first cicer milkvetch varieties introduced in the U.S.
“It usually doesn't get going strong until the third year,” Anderson says.
Planting in alternate rows to reduce competition from grasses, having the seed scarified to break its hard seed coat and applying a special inoculant can help with stand establishment. Planting newer varieties like Oxley and Oxley II, developed in western Canada, can also help speed stand establishment.
Once established, cicer is persistent and then some. “It's very long-lived,” says Anderson. “If you can get it going, it's likely to be there longer than you are.”
Cicer's “viny” nature makes it unsuitable for hay production in many cases.
“It can be done,” says Anderson. “But be ready for mechanical challenges. Plant material tends to plug up harvesting equipment.”
With grazing, Anderson says, moving cattle through cicer pastures quickly to top off rapidly growing plants is a key to success.
“If you stock continuously, you'll want to go with light stocking rates,” he says. “It's probably easier to manage in a rotational grazing system where you control the amount and rate of plant material removal.”
Barenbrug USA, Tangent, OR, sells Puna chicory and Matua prairie grass seed. Phone: 541-926-5801 or 800-547-4101 or visit www.barusa.com.
Big Sky Wholesale Seeds, Shelby, MT, sells several varieties of cicer milkvetch, including Lutana, Monarch, Oxley and Oxley II. Call 406-266-3103 or log on to www.bigskyseeds.com.
Bruce Seed Farm, Townsend, MT, sells Lutana, Monarch, Oxley and Windsor. Call 406-266-3103 or 800-767-2609.