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MARCH 22 Sheridan College researcher studies alternative beef forage crops

SHERIDAN — A Sheridan College instructor presented research focused on addressing the challenges dwindling resources pose to livestock producers at the Mars Agriculture Center Wednesday.

Rebecca Atkinson, an animal science instructor at Sheridan College, said her research has been driven by the reality that the availability of resources will wane in the near future.

“Our future generations to come have a huge challenge come 2050 — how are we going to feed everybody?” Atkinson said. “So what do we do? We have to start thinking out of the box.”

As the world’s population continues to increase, the lands available for livestock production will shrink. As a result, Atkinson predicted, the cost of available land will skyrocket.

Livestock producers, then, will have to find ways to do more with less and Atkinson said her research suggests alternative forage crops can help beef producers accomplish that task.

Atkinson said she has had success with growing forage soybeans, a variety of soybean typically planted for purpose of deer management, as a pasture crop for cows.

“I have several years growing forage soybeans and several years of people thinking I’m crazy,” Atkinson said.

But her unconventional utilization of forage soybeans has proven successful, Atkinson said. Most importantly, Atkinson said she discovered that cows would readily eat forage soybeans. The crop also proved to carry nearly the same nutritional qualities as crops like alfalfa, due to its high protein content.

Crucially, forage soybeans are also more resistant to summer weather conditions than traditional grazing crops, like alfalfa, which allows cattle producers to extend their grazing season deeper into the summer, when low rainfall typically damages the quality of forage crops.

Allowing cattle to graze on crops is generally cheaper than harvesting the crops, therefore extending the grazing season could prove to save cattle producers money, Atkinson said.

The forage soybeans have also been used to produce nutritious silage — fermented fodder created in airtight conditions used as feed during winter months. Silage produced from forage soybeans was nearly equivalent to silage produced from crops like alfalfa, Atkinson said. Because the forage soybeans compare favorably to other cattle feed, and can be utilized in a number of ways, Atkinson said they could benefit cattle producers looking to maximize the value of limited lands.

Making hay from forage soybeans proved less effective, however. Atkins said while forage soybean hay is nutritious and palatable to cattle, it takes much longer to condition and tends to mold faster than hay made from other crops.

However, Atkinson — who conducted much of her research into forage soybeans as a faculty member at Southern Illinois University — said soybean hay could be more viable in Wyoming’s climate.

“One thing I would like to potentially try out here is, what would the hay look like? There’s no humidity; we don’t have to worry about moisture as much,” Atkinson said.

Another potential downside of forage soybeans, she said, is their cost has been steadily increasing.

“When I started this, a bag of forage soybeans was $32,” Atkinson said. “A bag of forage soybeans unfortunately now…is $96.”

Though forage soybeans may not be a perfect solution, they could help livestock producers cope with an evolving set of challenges.