New forage soybeans are a first-year hit. Some farmers think they've found a perfect source of fast forage. Forage soybeans that grow over 6' tall are gaining the attention of dairy producers and cattle ranchers around the country.

You may recall reading about these long-legged legumes in the March 2000 Hay & Forage Grower, when they became commercially available. Three varieties are sold, each best-suited for a different growing region.

How did they measure up as a crop and feed in their first year?

The majority of the farmers and researchers we questioned were impressed with the beans' agronomics - flexible planting and harvesting windows, and little or no weed or insect problems. And most were also happy with the yield and quality. Yields topped 6 tons/acre, in some cases, and nutritional values were good.

To build a little more flexibility into his feed cropping program, Boscobel, WI, dairy farmer John Latham planted 80 acres of Derry last spring to provide additional forage for his expanding dairy operation.

"We no-tilled the beans into rye stubble to save time and money, planting around the middle of May," he recalls. "We applied a lot of manure to the field, so we did not use any commercial fertilizer."

The only weed control he used was a burndown application of Roundup to kill the rye.

Because the dairy was in need of forages in late summer, he harvested the crop in mid-August, three to four weeks earlier than recommended.

"We started feeding it right away, and were surprised at the quality," Latham says.

Shawn Quinn, Latham's dairy consultant, says analysis of the forage revealed better-than-expected quality. They tested 16.43% crude protein, 39% ADF and 49% NDF. The chopped forage was 39% dry matter.

"The crop also had nutrient levels similar to alfalfa silage," says Quinn.

Those numbers were a bit higher than an analysis done on a test plot of Derry grown at the University of Illinois Extension Research Center near Shabbona. According to Extension Educator Jim Morrison, the Group VI variety tested 27-28% dry matter, with crude protein ranging from 14.63% to 17.03%, ADF between 30.37% and 32.95% and NDF from 36.89% to 39.08%. Tons of dry matter per acre were between 3.9-4.2.

Morrison planted the crop May 30, harvesting half of it Sept. 26 and the other half Oct. 5. He says samples from the latter harvest yielded 7% less dry matter and nearly 2.5% less crude protein than the first harvest, while having 2.5% more ADF and 2% more NDF.

Latham chopped his crop and fed it right away in an 18% mix with corn silage. He says the cattle seemed to like the "sweet" feed.

"I didn't chop it fine enough, and some of the stem pieces were up to 8" long, so we saw some sorting by the cows. But it was still very palatable," he says.

"Considering the tonnage, the high quality of the forage and the wide window for both planting and harvest, we'll definitely be planting more Derry this coming season."

Farther east, interest is primarily in Donegal, a Group V variety. Most farmers in Pennsylvania, New York and the New England states who tried raising it last year seeded it as part of a forage mixture with sorghum and sudangrass.

"With their added height, the beans seem to stand up better planted in the mixture, especially in heavy rains," reports Greg Davis of Seedway, Hall, NY.

Just how tall can these beans get? In test plots on several farms around Clymer, NY, their nearly 8' height attracted attention. And, notes area farmer and seed dealer Brian Jantzi, "Everyone seemed to handle the crop a little differently, harvesting it at different stages and in different ways."

The crop seemed to be fairly forgiving in a variety of growing and feeding situations, he adds.

"I was going to make round silage bales from my field, then ended up cutting it a little early with a flail chopper and feeding it to some heifers - the sorghum hadn't headed yet," Jantzi says. "Another farmer I visited held off on harvest 'til the sorghum was mature and the beans were podded."

He says the forage soybeans proved very palatable. "The feed had a good smell, and the heifers always ate it all."

The seed mixture had such good emergence and grew so fast that the crop canopy quickly shaded out any weeds, Jantzi says. Most farmers reported needing no herbicide at all with these forage soybeans.

The beans' Achilles heel may be the lack of weed control options. Few soybean herbicides are approved for use on feed crops. Another limiting factor is soil pH, notes Seedway's Davis.

"You need to have a pH of 5.4 or higher," he says. "Soybeans just don't tolerate acid soils."

They do seem to tolerate heat and drought fairly well, though, notes Howard Tabor, sales manager for Southern States Cooperative.

"It got really dry in parts of the Southeast in July and August, and these Tyrone soybeans held up much better than seed beans. They still produced a decent-quality forage crop," says Tabor. Tyrone is a Group VII variety, intended for the South.

He and other suppliers expect to have nearly double last year's seed supply for the 2001 growing season. But based on the crop's early popularity, Tabor expects to be sold out by Mar. 1. Seed price ranges between $20 and $25/bag.

The main distributors of seed are Seedway, Hall, NY; Wolf River Valley Seed Co., White Lake, WI; and Southern States-affiliated co-ops.