Milo is drought resistance and low cost, making it a good option.

March 11, 2024

5 Min Read

Missouri cattle producer John Chamberlin didn’t want to sell his cows when drought lingered and hay supplies and forages dwindled last year.

With more than 600 head of Angus cows, Chamberlin looked to the internet for ideas. A University of Missouri Extension video intrigued him.

He called the video’s creator, agronomist Rusty Lee in Montgomery County, to learn more. With the help of Pettis County livestock specialist Gene Schmitz, they set up one-on-one Zoom training for Chamberlin at the MU Extension Center in Pettis County.

In spite of the drought, Chamberlin grew 115 acres of milo that made 80 to 90 bushels per acre. Lee and Schmitz then visited Chamberlin’s Henry County farm to see his operation, assess the grain yield and make recommendations on carrying capacity and daily allocation area size.

Lee, a longtime proponent of grazing of standing milo, wanted to help Chamberlin implement the alternative feeding plan that has worked for nearly a decade on Lee’s own farm and others in east-central Missouri.

Chamberlin was ready to take a leap of faith. “I have no feed,” he told them. “If this milo thing doesn’t work, I’m going to have to sell cows.”

His gamble paid off.

Milo’s drought resistance and low cost make it a good option, especially when hay is scarce and expensive. It also solves the challenge of making hay in May, the month typically with the most rainfall. No longer do you have to worry about curing hay when there are clouds in the sky. “You just sit there and watch your milo grow,” says Lee.

Milo does best for grain production when planted May to early June. Planting can follow winter wheat, but Lee recommends allowing the full growing season. Using poly wire electric fencing, the producer moves cows daily to a fresh paddock. Lee describes it as “taking the cows to the feed rather than taking the feed to the cows.”

Producers also see another benefit. The herd’s urine and manure retain soil nutrients taken up by the plants, so the nutrients are not exported off the farm as bushels of grain.

Lee gives some math lessons in milo. An average milo yield of 120 bushels per acre is 6,720 pounds of grain. Taking into consideration the observed feeding losses of 25% as the cattle graze, that leaves 5,040 pounds per acre into the mouths of cows. Allocating 12 pounds of grain per cow per day yields a carrying capacity of 420 cow days per acre.

Waiting two weeks after the fall killing frost before grazing avoids prussic acid concerns. Typically, a Nov. 1 start allows grazing all winter until the planted acres are consumed. While it is possible to graze milo until spring green-up of pastures, March winds combined with deteriorating stalk strength make it a good idea to conclude milo grazing by Valentine’s Day.

Chamberlin says cows adjust to moving to a new paddock each morning. They are ready and waiting for their owner to move the poly wire at daybreak. Cows with a “healthy respect” for electric fence do best in this setup, says Lee.

Chamberlin says the process is remarkably short – 20 minutes. That’s far less time than he would spend putting hay into rings or rolling it out on the ground.

Infrastructure needs such as water and fencing for rotational grazing remain, and fields may require some spring discing after cattle trample them. Milo shows little disease pressure in most of the state, although southwestern Missouri has seen some aphids.

Composite forage tests of all plant parts consumed show total digestible nutrient values of 73%-75% and crude protein of 7%. That is adequate energy, but requires protein supplementation, says Lee. Various commodity feeds like soybean meal or high-quality hay can provide this.

Chamberlin said he moved cows off milo to shelter and fed them hay during extreme cold spells this winter.

At the end of the season, Chamberlin found that he got 375 cow days per acre on the 115 acres of milo he planted. Lee estimated yield between 80 and 90 bushels per acre.

“Milo grazing is economical compared to buying hay, especially this year,” says Chamberlin. “It’s always going to be a part of my program.” His only regret is that he didn’t plant more milo this year. In spring, he plans to broadcast a mix of cover crop seeds before planting milo again.

“It was a home run for me,” he says. Chamberlin says milo grazing saved him from buying 1,400 bales of hay this winter. Hay sold on the low end this year at $65 for a big bale, which would have cost $91,000. On the higher end, at $125 per bale, that’s a savings of $175,000 for his herd. He also saved time and labor.

That’s why milo grazing is a practice you can bank on, says Lee. “He’s really putting money in his pocket.”

Lee gives these tips for planting milo for grazing:

  • Wait until soil temperatures reach 60 degrees or more to plant.

  • Don’t plant too thick. Your goal is to grow grain, not forage.

  • Use a pre-emergent herbicide for weed control. Once weeds emerge in milo, they are difficult to control.

  • Have a fertilizer plan in place. A split application of 120-150 pounds of nitrogen does well. Test soil for phosphorus and potassium needs.

  • Don’t force cows to graze to the dirt. Ideally, cows eat to about 18 inches of stalk residue within two hours.

Lee’s experience also shows that the best varieties have closed heads and good stalk strength or lodging scores, and that the crop performs best when planted in 30-inch rows.

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