Soybeans may not be a new forage crop. But, three new varieties, bred specifically for high crude protein and dry matter levels, may offer beef producers another annual forage option. These recently released forage soybeans distinguish themselves at first glance; the rather leggy legumes can stand more than six feet tall.

But it's the forage performance and not just the appearance of these new soybeans that is attracting attention. Both research and on-farm test plots of the crop have produced dry matter yields topping 6 tons/acre and crude protein levels ranging as high as 17-22%, depending on management and conditions. Combine those figures with a wide spring window for planting and a wide window for fall harvest, and you've got a productive yet low-maintenance forage crop, researchers say.

Plenty Palatable Longdale, OK, cattleman James Harman says the crop provided a good winter feed for his cow/calf operation.

"I was initially concerned about whether the stems and pods would be palatable, since the crop was very mature when we cut it," he recalls. "But we rolled it and made big round bales out of it. We fed them free choice and the cattle ate it up - both the pods and the stems. There was very little waste."

Harman planted five different varieties of the forage soybeans on 15 acres in both 1997 and 1998, and says they produced an average of 3,000 lbs. of dry matter/acre, compared to 2,000 lbs./acre from grain-type soybeans he also planted.

"That was a pretty good yield for a dryland crop," he notes. "I was certainly happy getting crude protein levels of over 20%. That allowed us to feed the large bales with some cheaper hay, too.

"It would be an ideal forage for backgrounding stocker calves or for preconditioning calves for the feedlot," he adds.

Developed by USDA geneticist Tom Devine in cooperation with Elwood Hatley at Penn State University and David Starner at Virginia Tech, the three varieties of forage soybeans made commercially available this year include Donegal, Derry and Tyrone.

Donegal, a Group V variety recommended for Pennsylvania, New York and the New England states, is a high yielder, producing nearly twice the dry matter of grain-type varieties. Its leaf size is often 50% larger than normal grain soybeans, which helps it develop a denser canopy. (For information call Greg Davis at Seedway, 800/836-3710.)

Derry is the Group VI variety, suggested for the northern Midwest. It is exceptionally tall, has good late-season standability and has produced crude protein levels as high as 22%. (For information call Wolf River Valley at 715/882-3100.)

Tyrone, the latest maturing of the three, is a Group VII variety intended for the southern states. (For information call South States Cooperative at 804/281-1000.)

One of the biggest benefits of the new beans, according to Devine, is they offer farmers greater flexibility in their forage plans.

"These varieties can be grown with sorghum/sudan grass, corn, grain sorghum or millet; or they can be planted as a strip crop," he says. "They also have various crop uses, such as for green manure, mulch, hay or silage." One Missouri researcher is even exploring the crop's regrowth and grazing potential after cutting.

Added Height Comes Late Throughout the normal growing season, these beans may not look much different than grain-producing varieties, note most researchers who've worked with them. "The added height of these plants comes in the last quarter of the season," says Devine.

These soybeans have produced good forage in both wet and dry years, and have shown good adaptability to a variety of field conditions, report researchers and agronomists. But there are a few management considerations to be aware of when working with these legumes:

* Test your soil's pH, making sure it's in the 6.5 to 6.7 range.

* Use an inoculant, if you haven't grown soybeans on the field recently.

* Plant in narrow rows to encourage better crop canopy development and weed control early in the season.

* Select herbicides that have no label restrictions for feeding the crop.

* Seeding rates should not be less than those for grain soybeans (175,000 to 200,000 seeds per acre).

This season, limited quantities of the seed are available from three companies: Seedway of Hall, NY; Wolf River Valley Seed Co., White Lake, WI; and Southern States Cooperative based in Richmond, VA. Price of the new seed ranges from $20 to $25/bag.