Bedtime Snacks for Winter Forages“Bedtime snacks can be healthy and help you sleep better.” This statement reflects practical wisdom of many human dietitians and sleep therapists. I believe it also applies to plant dietitians, a dignified body of scientists with whom I rub shoulders frequently.

It can be argued that winter forages go to bed for the winter, effectively hibernating. The correct term for plants taking a long winter’s nap is dormancy. One definition explains “for plants, dormancy declares when to prepare their soft tissues for freezing temperatures, dry weather or water and nutrient shortage. Instead of exerting energy in an attempt to grow, they ‘know’ to stop growing and conserve energy until mild weather returns.”

Most agronomists classify the following small grain species as winter forages: wheat, rye, triticale (a manmade hybrid of wheat, genus Triticum, and rye, genus Secalis), barley and speltz.

By now, hopefully anyone wishing to plant winter versions of wheat, triticale or barley has done so, enjoying the act of looking down straight, nicely formed green rows (which hopefully escape hungry migrating Canada geese). The practice of successful planting of rye and speltz enjoys a wider time window. Thus, these two species are a little more accommodating of less than ideal planting dates. If rye and speltz can be planted before Halloween, they still have a decent chance of storing enough root energy reserves to make it through a Northeast winter.

The likelihood of late small grain plantings dodging winter kill is enhanced by the graces of ongoing La Niña climate patterns. These predict that temperatures in the Northeast will on average remain unseasonably mild past Thanksgiving, possibly to year’s end.

Regarding crop feeding management, I’m trusting that small grain growers have current soil test results. Any documented phosphorus needs should be met at planting time, as this is the generally accepted starter nutrient for almost all crops. Moving further into autumn, with growers now managing an emerged crop, I refer to New York field research, which found that up to 60 pounds of nitrogen (N) per acre increased spring yields of fall-planted triticale by 43% on fields without prior spring/summer manure applications. Early plantings and autumn N applications significantly increased the number of tillers which in turn set the spring yield potential.

Even with autumn N applications, we strongly recommend including sulfur (S), with a 10:1 N:S ratio. Let me caution that rye plants, due to being taller than the other winter forage species, tend to be more prone to lodging with N rates exceeding 50 lbs./acre in autumn.

As another form of bedtime snack for winter grain forages, folks with sod manure injectors can satisfy spring N needs by applying manure up through November or whatever time ground becomes impenetrable due to freezing. Two winters ago, some New York folks were able to inject manure as late as January.

Manure N is in the ammonia (NH3) form, which attaches to soil particles, not leaching or denitrifying. When the ground warms come spring, NH3 converts to nitrate, immediately uptaken by winter forage vegetation which is already green and growing. Depending on the injector type, it may be necessary to roll the field after injection to assure a smooth surface for spring mowing. Fields that are flat or dish-shaped – thus prone to collecting spring runoff – are susceptible to snow mold that can kill the crop in that area. Fertilizing those areas just before snowfall, with two quarts of liquid S fertilizer and a spreader sticker, has effectively countered snow mold.

Snow mold is a type of fungus and a turf disease that damages or kills grass after snow melts, typically in late winter. Its damage is usually concentrated in circles three to 12 inches in diameter. When winter forages start to perk up (about when crocuses pop out of the ground), they will start to sop up some of surplus moisture that made the mold spores feel welcome in the first place – and it’s still a good idea to use the liquid S fertilizer.

With the cost of commercial N fertilizer continuing to misbehave, another form of this nutrient is broadcast medium red clover. This should be done about when snow is all gone from meadows, except for lingering traces of stubborn snow drifts. Red clover can be an excellent green manure that fixes N, suppresses weeds and increases corn yields. As a slow growing, cool season legume, it is suitable to under-sowing into winter small grains in early spring. It continues to grow after small grain harvest, combined or baled, and can be terminated (preferably by disking) in autumn or the following spring before corn planting.

Frost-seeding is a method of broadcasting in which seeds are spread onto frozen ground or snow in late winter or early spring and worked into the ground through the freezing and thawing of the soil. The N contributed by a healthy red clover sod to the next crop in the rotation – or to the accompanying awakening winter forage – can be as much as 100 lbs./acre. However, it’s important to note that in a slow-warming spring, applying some of the much more reactive commercial N usually proves to be a reasonable crop insurance premium.

One suggestion might be to spend as much on urea, ammonium nitrate or UAN (a blend of the other two ingredients) as you would have in a normal cost year. Thus you’ll likely apply about half as much N on the no longer dormant winter forage in 2023 as you did in 2022. But it should prove to be a cost-effective way to optimize crop yields.