Crop Comments: Harnessing the Fringe

There are at least a couple options for planting forages that really put to good use the cooler conditions that surround Indian Summer in the Northeast. The best time to plant these “packages,” seldom just a single species, is the middle 10 days of August. The question then is where to plant these. Many folks were able to get 75- to 80-day corn planted more or less on time, despite a chilly, drawn-out April. According to my April electric bill statement, the average temperature in Otsego County was 41º F. Throughout April 2020, the only crops that looked good were late summer/early fall-planted small grains/winter forages.

Then May warmed up nicely, but rainfall became the limiting factor, typically falling in the feast-or-famine category. Some growers got the right amount of precipitation at exactly the right time; some got too much. But all too many crop people in the region were seriously short-changed on moisture. An anecdotal example of the latter was the local weatherman reporting that May rainfall only totaled 0.45 inch at the local weather station. The first few days of June weren’t much better than May at most locations in the region. As droughty as things were, though, nothing came close to what the region suffered through during the growing season of 2012. That epoch earned the moniker Drought 2012. Corn yields nationally were hurt so badly that just before Labor Day 2012 U.S. #2 corn cleared the $8/bushel mark at the Chicago Board of Trade.

At that time, iconic Mohawk Valley grain grower Buddy Richardson told me, “Mark my word, next year farmers will be planting fence row to fence row, plowing up goldenrod and the resulting surplus will drop the bottom out of the corn price.” His forecast was right on target. Corn acreage increased significantly in 2013, lowering the price around Labor Day that year into the “low fives.” The trend continued, and 12 months later corn price bottomed out at $3.25.

So 2020 short-season corn that’s hit black layer (or proper stage of kernel milk line, take your pick) should be harvested as corn silage by dairy crop people. Letting it mature far enough for easy combining will gobble up growing season that could be put to much better use by winter forages. The need to get that corn harvested earlier as silage, rather than later as grain, is intensified by soil organic matters (SOM) less than 4%. The lower the SOM, the lower the soil’s and crop’s resilience to moisture extremes. Corn and soybean plants lack fibrous root systems. This fact gradually gnaws away at SOM. The hot climate summer annuals – sorghums, sudangrasses, their crosses and millets – small grains and all perennials boast fibrous root systems and thus the ability to build up SOM and soil health in general.

On Aug. 4, much of the Northeast saw field operations halted due to hurricane fringe thrust our way from Isaias. Most places receiving this fringe got about 1.5 inches of rain. The vast majority of this rainfall was absorbed by sods; row crops, not so much. With plenty of moisture in the soil, I ask growers to consider a couple possibilities for harnessing this moisture, as well as time remaining on the downhill side of growing season 2020. For cornfields that can be sensibly harvested in mid- to late-August, I’ve seen good results with a blend of buckwheat and daikon tillage radishes.

According to the website hosstools.com/product/tillage-radish, “Tillage radish is a cool season cover crop with many benefits for improving soil quality and reducing soil pest pressure. It is the ideal cover crop for clay or other hard, compacted soils. These Daikon-style radishes form long, slender roots that can penetrate the hardest soils. The solid roots will reach deep into compacted soils, making them easier to manage in the following growing season.” I like to see five pounds radish seed drilled per acre (before September starts), accompanied by 25 pounds of buckwheat seed, along with two or three pounds of clover (your choice of variety).

The buckwheat provides cover to the radish and clover. With the first killing frost, the buckwheat dies, and the radish and clover keep plodding along. When the temperature drops down into the 10º – 15º range, the radishes die, and shortly after that, the clover goes into winter dormancy. But the radish will have effectively bored vertical holes into soil, providing the benefits of improved aeration and percolation. Clover will come on in the spring, usually accompanied by whatever grass seeds volunteer, germinating from the seed bank. If this buckwheat-radish-clover mix is planted after September starts, buckwheat may tell the grower that it should have been planted earlier. As always, fertilize based on soil test results.

The second blend that performs well with mid- to late-August plantings is oats, winter rye and clover. This can be planted after a short-season corn or any of the hot climate summer annuals – they only need 65 – 75 days to do their forage thing. I’ve had good luck with drilling per acre 50 pounds of oats, 50 pounds of winter rye and five pounds of a clover. If this blend is spun on, increase the poundages by 20 – 25%. Normally about the last week of October, the small grain forages will be 18 – 24 inches tall. This stand can be mowed and harvested for forage – but be sure to leave at least four inches of stubble. Shorter stubble seriously impairs plant regrowth and ability to store root reserves needed for winter. When temperatures dip down into that 10º – 15º range, oats will die, and the rye and clover go into dormancy. The dead oats and dormant rye hang on to snow, protecting the clover. Come late March or early April, the rye and clover come to life, leaving the dead oats to thatch on the ground like a jettisoned rocket stage.

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