Several years elapsed since I had last seen Tom Kilcer. His first year as a field crops Cooperative Extension (CE) agent (1977-78) overlapped with my last year in that profession. He had just been assigned to Columbia County, NY, while I was finishing my 63 months in Otsego County CE. In the intervening time span I’d seen him occasionally at CE regional meetings. My next contact with him was in 2012. At that time, a Midwest seedcorn company that I was working with was surviving that year’s drought better than their competitors. Much of their success hinged on the following advice from one particular crop consultant: Kilcer.
Having retired from CE three years earlier, Kilcer now managed field crop research at Cornell’s Valatie Research Farm in Columbia County. He invited me to visit crop demonstrations there in July 2012, during the height of that year’s drought. Most impressive was how poorly corn variety trials were doing. Most corn shriveled from the drought; many plants died. He explained that these plots had been sites of weed control experiments. To encourage weeds on which to try out different herbicides, non-stop corn-on-corn had been planted. This practice invited weeds that needing killing while seriously whittling down organic matter (OM). OM on these demo plots ranged from 2.6% to 2.9%, which intensified the drought problem. Sorghum, sudangrass, their hybrids and millets, however, weren’t suffering from the serious moisture lack. Between June 15 and July 31, 2012, Valatie Research Farm received one-half-inch of rainfall.
Kilcer showed where soon he would plant small grain trials. I asked him if those would be his cover crop demos. He came close to raising his voice when he told me, “Don’t call them cover crops. They’re winter forages.” He explained this distinction further in his July 2023 newsletter at advancedagsys.com. He elaborated that winter forages are not harvested cover crops.
Quoting Kilcer: “A cover crop is cheap seed that is tossed out and if it turns green is considered a success. Winter forage is selected for high yield and winterhardiness; deliberately planted on time with a drill and fall fertilized for maximum yield potential. The difference between the two in the spring is huge. The other difference is that with the higher level of management, the winter forage produces soil and environmental benefits equal to cover crops on steroids. The benefits are far above a simple ‘cover crop.’”
The first choice in winter forage is between rye grain and triticale. Both will yield well. Both have similar digestibility if harvested at the same flag leaf stage. Rye may survive better if just tossed out and/or planted late, but neither approach supports high yields. Newer triticale varieties mature almost the same day as rye if planted the same day. Rye has a narrower harvest window which is difficult to hit.
The biggest problem with rye, compared to triticale, is standability. Rye is about 25% taller than triticale, but most triticale varieties have been selected for dense tillering. Triticale produces high yields from many more tillers on a shorter plant. More importantly, the shorter triticale will stand and support much higher nitrogen (N) rates. Rye at the same rate would be flat on the ground; its extra height pre-disposes rye to major lodging. Thus, triticale can result in much higher crude protein (18% or more) with good management (due to being able to utilize extra N without lodging).
Under no circumstances are growers advised to plant a mix of winter rye and triticale. It’s impossible to get the two to mature at the same rate. Kilcer mentioned an instance where a farmer bought cheap, bin-run mixture of rye and triticale. The rye was at flag leaf stage the next spring when the triticale was only half-grown. If he took it at the quality stage for rye, he lost half of the triticale yield. If he waited for the triticale, he had high-quality triticale mixed in with rye straw.
Kilcer again: “Been there, done that, don’t do it. Buying VNS (variety not stated) out of a farmer’s bin is even riskier than the above farmer’s bad experience. You don’t know what steps they took, or didn’t take, to maintain the germination for a high percentage that will actually sprout. Farms growing barley for malt found that you must dry carefully and at the right temperature, or the seed will not sprout – malt. The same with triticale. If it is not dried and handled properly, it is like buying a steer to breed your cows.”
Kilcer asked growers if they would buy bin-run corn from a neighbor to plant for silage. Just like with corn and sorghum, there is a right seeding rate. His multiple-year replicated research has not seen any advantage in planting more than 100 lbs. winter triticale seed/acre regardless of the planting date. Planting 120 or 150 lbs. of seed means paying 20% – 50% more for the same yield. Growers forced to plant late are advised to utilize seed with a three-way fungicide to insure better yields, rather than go with higher seeding rates.
Nearly all farms plant treated seed for intensely managed, high-yield wheat for grain. Why not use this same benefit for high-yield forage? In replicated plots, the triticale planting with the treated seed grew much faster and tillered more when planted on time, nearly double in height going into winter. Come spring, it yielded 15% higher than the untreated plots. When planted late (not recommended for high yield, but it happens), the treated seed yielded 28% higher than untreated the next spring. Planting treated seeds helps recover some of the impacts of late planting.
It only raises the cost of the seed slightly. But reducing the planting rate on early planting from 100 to 90 lbs./acre would pay for this extra treatment. Interested growers are advised to order their treated seed early to get this benefit.