September 5, 2007 | By: Laura Skillman

One of the top three driest May through August periods on record has left the state’s soybean crop suffering and farmers pondering whether to harvest their soybeans for forage. Scientists with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture have been fielding farmers’ questions on this topic in recent days, and they say the answer is not simple.

Crop conditions vary across the state and even within counties, and farmers also have to determine what is best for their particular operation based on their needs, crop insurance coverage and other factors.

Before determining if there’s enough growth to provide adequate yield for forage, farmers need to take the following steps. First, discuss the option with their crop insurance company to ensure they take the proper steps to meet their coverage requirements. In Kentucky, many double-cropped soybean acres are not covered by crop insurance, because they are planted after insurable planting dates established by the U.S. Risk Management Agency. These dates vary by county.

Farmers also need to document what they are doing with the Farm Service Agency in case federal disaster programs are expanded to include soybeans, said Bob Finch, chief of farm programs for the Kentucky State FSA office. Without this documentation, farmers would not be eligible for disaster relief if it becomes available.

The third step is to review labels for all chemicals used on the soybean crop for any restrictions for grazing or harvesting soybeans as a forage and follow these label requirements. 

The fourth step in the process would be to then determine if the beans are worth harvesting as grain, forage or neither, said Garry Lacefield, UK forage specialist. In some cases, yields may be so low that the soybeans are not worth harvesting.

Ideally, soybeans should be harvested when green, plump seeds fill the pods to maximize yield and quality. When harvesting drought-stressed soybeans, seed size will be much smaller, meaning that much of the feed value will come from the leaves. As a result, ensiling or wrapping the baled soybeans in plastic for balage will retain more leaves and may be a better option than baling the soybeans as dry hay.

Soybeans harvested for silage should be about 35 percent dry matter for trenches or upright silos, but 40 percent to 50 percent dry matter for balage. While crude protein could exceed 15 percent and total digestible nutrients could exceed 50 percent if seed fill is completed and most of the leaves are retained, small soybeans harvested before seed fill may have very different feed values. Approximate levels for soybean stover are 5 percent protein and 40 percent total digestible nutrients. 

The decision whether to harvest soybeans as forage is an individual one, Lacefield reiterated. If yields appear to be adequate and a farmer can properly ensile the soybeans, then harvesting them for forage could be the last, best option to capture some value from the crop and help feed livestock this winter. But, farmers need to take the proper steps to ensure they don’t lose out on crop insurance or possible disaster relief as they look to salvage something from the crop, he said.

Additional information can be found at the UK Cooperative Service’s drought information Web site.


Garry Lacefield, 270-365-7541, ext. 202, Chad Lee, 859-257-3203