Winter forages are something in which I have become a super believer in during the last dozen years. (Reminder: they are small grains planted during late summer or early autumn; they have been selectively bred to go dormant over winter, then spring to life as soon as prolonged cold weather loosens its icy grip in March or April.)
What initially started out as cover crop increasingly plays a role as a premier forage crop in rotations across northern states. While these crops still provide cover crop benefits, high forage yields are also increasingly an achievable goal.
Winter forages can be very profitable, helping ruminants perform to their fullest potential, commonly yielding 17% – 20% crude protein forage, accompanied by highly digestible neutral detergent fiber (NDFd) when harvested at flag leaf stage. Field research in Pennsylvania compared alfalfa to properly harvested winter forage, showing that alfalfa NDFd was 46 while the winter forage NDFd was 65. This represents 9.5 lbs. more milk from the same dry matter. Many winter triticale forage samples test even higher at 70 NDFd.
Properly harvested winter forage really excels during midsummer heat. Because of the high fiber digestibility, the dreaded “summer slump” disappears when highly digestible winter forage is added to the ration. Indigestible fiber elevates heat increment – an asset in January but not in July.
The benefit farmers discovered when growing winter forage triticale is the 25% – 35% increase in total yield. To plant triticale on time in northern regions, we recommend growing a shorter season corn. Dropping from 105- to 85-day corn will lose an average of three tons of corn silage/acre (approximately 1.05 tons dry matter). That is offset by getting the triticale planted on time, with six to 12 tons of as-fed winter forage haylage or baleage yield or two to four tons of dry matter. Winter forage at flag leaf produces more milk per ton, offsetting the reduced corn silage yield.
A second bonus is that, increasingly, field test results show that planting corn no-till into triticale stubble out-yields conventionally tilled and planted corn. Bare soil over winter reduces soil health and structure. Both improve under winter forage; the soil improves just as if a sod is growing there. Thus, the projected three-ton corn silage loss expected from shorter season varieties may not occur. Corn usually responds favorably to healthier soil structure, porosity and moisture management provided by winter forage.
Winter triticale is the earliest mechanically harvested forage growers can produce. Farms with tight or short supply of haylage are able to harvest early varieties of triticale at flag leaf stage – and start feeding weeks before the first cutting was ready and fermented. Some farms have dropped alfalfa, adopting a winter triticale forage and a summer energy forage for year-round cropping systems, enjoying higher yields of high-quality forage at less cost.
One key benefit of winter forage is that the soil is protected from erosion. Winter thaws – where the top of the soil liquefies over frozen ground and then gets rained on – remove much of the best part of soil structure. Such soil loss is subtle but real. For fields with repeated top-dressed manure, the very high fertility of the surface is washed away, wasting money. On-time winter forage is superior at protecting the soil all winter.
After corn silage harvest in September on heavily manured fields, the manure continues to release nitrogen and convert it to nitrate until the ground temperature drops below 50º F. This is usually about two months after harvest. With no roots to absorb it (other than winter annual weeds), the nitrogen is denitrified in wet conditions or leached out of the soil. Research from Cornell’s Dr. Quirine Ketterings found that every pound of dry matter growing on the soil as winter forage normally yields 22% crude protein. Such a ton of winter forage dry matter holds more than 70 lbs. of nitrogen safely, pending use the following spring.
The value of saved nitrogen normally more than pays for the cost of winter triticale seed. Note: growers don’t enjoy that nitrogen storage benefit unless they plant the crop on time, maximizing the dry matter produced before winter shuts things down. In Cornell-overseen research, late planted winter forage going into winter, three to five inches tall, had saved only 4 lbs. of nitrogen. The much taller, on-time planting right next to it contained 123 lbs. N/acre. The triticale will not winterkill from the high nitrogen or lush growth.
Winter annual weeds and perennials such as quack grass get a running start when corn ground is bare from harvest until the corn is planted the next spring; winter triticale gets a head start on spring quackgrass – a claim corn can’t make.
Winter triticale forage smothers weeds and helps come spring, since there is 60% less soil moisture – growing forage consumed it. Drier soils warm sooner. Often farmers safely harvest all their triticale, spread manure and plant corn without damaging the drier soil structure. Those same farmers typically must wait until the rest of the corn ground (absent winter forage) dries out before field work can commence.
Winter forages start up in spring before perennial forages do on neighboring fields. Winter forages often enable their growers to harvest 10 to 12 tons of haylage before planting corn – placing them ahead of neighbors without this class of roughage.
Finally, winter forage stubble is the perfect surface in which to no-till corn, soybeans or legume seedings. Infrared from the sun penetrates green-growing winter forage, warming the ground. After harvest, there is only stubble, and the ground continues to warm. More importantly, there is little or no residue to interfere with planting or give a place for slugs to hide and attack crops. Stubble keeps drying wind off soil surfaces, maximizing moisture for the crop. The stubble and massive decaying root system protects the soil from erosion. Alfalfa no-tilled into winter triticale stubble is better protected from a downpour compared to alfalfa planted in bare soil.