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Information for Buckwheat Growers

Buckwheat for Forage

Thomas Björkman and Larry Chase (Animal Science)

When there is a shortage of hay, buckwheat can be a good alternative forage crop. There is no question that cattle will happily eat buckwheat. In fact, buckwheat straw can't be used as bedding for that reason. But what is the forage value of buckwheat?

If buckwheat is cut early in flowering (5-6 weeks after sowing), the amount of protein is respectable (15-20%) and the digestibility is high. Waiting longer to cut decreases quality and does not increase yield substantially. The value of buckwheat as forage can be comparable to the grain price if hay prices spike, so selling buckwheat as forage may be an option for buckwheat growers to consider in some years.

In 2005, grower Jerry Price of Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, baled buckwheat that was in flower. The forage was 70% moisture and the buyer found that the cows ate it happily.  The dry-basis analysis from AgriAnalysis was
Protein 16.4%,  ADF 32.9%, NDF 41.8%, K 1.93%, 0.68 NEL, RFV 141.

We had some samples of buckwheat from 2000 analyzed by the Dairy One lab in Ithaca. The results indicate that buckwheat harvested as hay has protein content similar to corn silage, and fiber and in vitro total digestibility similar to good quality alfalfa hay.

Steuben Co.: The buckwheat was picked when the grains were 30-50% brown. The seeds had mostly filled, but were not yet hard. It would be perhaps 3-4 weeks before they would be combined for grain.
9.0% CP, 0.63 NEL, 36% ADF, 43% NDF dNDF 34% 72% IVTD RFQ=122

Seneca Co. 50-65% brown. 1.7 T/ac DM - poor stand, 24" tall.
4.5% CP, 0.59 NEL, 41% ADF, 50% NDF, dNDF 29%, 65% IVTD, RFQ=96.
The low protein and low dNDF are indicators that harvest for forage should be done earlier that these samples (see other forage samples below).

Buckwheat hay should be similar to forages that dairy farmers are familiar with. It has good digestibility, but the protein would need to be raised to make a balanced ration. You can calculate the value of buckwheat forage based on the fiber content. If alfalfa hay costs $100/ton, the Steuben Co. buckwheat would be worth about $65/dry ton. The dry matter yield in a weak stand (20-24" high) would be 1 ton/acre, and in a strong stand (30-36" high), 2-3 tons. Hay harvested earlier, when it is ideal quality, would be worth more.

For buckwheat growers, forage can be an option under certain conditions. First, if the crop has poor seed set evident in late August or early September, the forage value may be higher than the grain value. Low seed set at that time can happen if growth is especially lush, or if there have been prolonged high temperatures in early to mid-August. Second, if hay prices are high because of local crop failures, using buckwheat for forage may be a good idea.

For dairy producers, buckwheat forage can fill in corn acreage that was not planted due to adverse weather. June sowing and some nitrogen or manure promote vegetative growth. A double crop of annual forage is possible, according to Tom Kilcer of CCE. If buckwheat is planted in June for late August harvest, then oats or triticale can be direct drilled for fall harvest. However, in June there are more attractive forage choices.

Some Cornell Cooperative extension staff have also done tests on buckwheat for forage. These have substantial protein levels compared to our samples.

Tom Kilcer, Renssalaer Co.: (Yields were 1.47-2.87 tons of dry matter. Early planting was 2.09 average tons and late planting was 1.78 tons. Average of all cuts was 1.94 tons.)

3.1% CP; 29.2% ADF; 0.65 NEL

Pete Barney (St. Lawrence Co): Planted in mid June with starter fertilizer

July 31 ( 36" tall, in flower) 19.9% CP; 22.6% ADF; 30.5% NDF; 2.2% K

Aug. 18 (45", a few seeds) 11% CP; 29.6% ADF; 2.04% K

Sept 1 (45", some mature seeds) 15.6% CP; 35.5% ADF; 1.48% K

Sept. 21 (45" mature seeds). 12.5% CP; 28.6% ADF; 0.66 NEL ; 1.36% K

Steve Hadcock (Columbia Co.):

25.7% CP; 46.6% NDF; 31.8% ADF; 0.61 NEL 

Feeding grain
It is also possible to feed grain buckwheat, but it has no outstanding value compared to other feedstuffs. The sharp grains may require special processing. Under normal conditions, corn and soybeans are easier feed to grow and are cheaper to buy than buckwheat. However, buckwheat for feed could make sense in short-season areas where the land base is more than can be planted to other crops. It can also make sense to feed buckwheat grain if an open market is not available, or if the amount produced on the farm can't be economically trucked to the buyer. Dairy farms in Northern New York with a field or two of buckwheat may be in this situation.

The main concern about using buckwheat as cattle feed is that a skin rash can develop on light-colored cows if they are fed a ration that is greater than 30% buckwheat and they are in the sun. Most dairies wouldn't have that much buckwheat to feed, and sunshine is rare enough in a Northeastern winter, so this concern might be small.


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