Many dietitians (as well as sleep therapists) believe that a midnight snack helps the sleeper enjoy unconscious rest more peacefully and productively. The snacking endorsement also comes from plant dietitians, a group of scientists with whom I have frequent contact.
When winter forages go to bed for the cold weather season, they are effectively hibernating. The correct term for plants taking a long winter’s nap is dormancy. One definition explains dormancy as follows: “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 attempts to grow, they sense the need to stop growing and conserve energy until mild weather returns.”
Most agronomists classify the following grain species as winter forages: wheat, rye, triticale (a man-made hybrid of wheat, genus Triticum, and rye, genus Secalis), barley and speltz.
Hopefully, anyone reading this and wishing to plant winter versions of wheat, triticale or barley has done so – enjoying the process of looking down straight, nicely formed green rows. Hopefully these rows escape the beaks of hungry, migrating Canada geese. The successful planting of rye and speltz enjoys a wider window. Thus, these two species are more accommodating of less-than-ideal planting dates. If rye and speltz are planted before Halloween, they very likely can store enough root energy reserves to survive Northeast winters.
Regarding crop feeding management, I trust that small grain growers have current soil test results. Any documented phosphorus (P) needs should be met at planting time, since this is the generally accepted starter nutrient for almost all crops.
Moving further into autumn, with growers hopefully now managing an emerged crop, I refer to New York field studies. That research found that up to 60 lbs. 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 then set the spring yield potential. With autumn N applications, we strongly recommend including sulfur (S), with a 10:1 N:S ratio. Remember that rye plants – taller than other winter forage species – are more prone to lodging when fall-applied N rates exceed 50 lbs./acre.
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 frosted ground becomes impenetrable). Three winters ago, some New Yorkers could spread manure as late as January.
Manure N is in the ammonia (NH3) form, which attaches to soil particles, thus avoiding leaching and denitrifying. When the ground warms come spring, NH3 converts to nitrate and is immediately up-taken by winter forage vegetation, which is already green and growing.
Depending on the injector type, it may be necessary to roll fields 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. Fertilizing those areas just before snowfall with two quarts of liquid S fertilizer and a spreader sticker has effectively countered snow mold.
This malady is a fungus and turf disease that damages or kills after snow melts, typically in late winter. Its damage is usually concentrated in circles three to 12 inches in diameter. When winter forages start perking up (about when crocuses start popping out of the ground), they will sop up some of the surplus moisture that welcomed mold spores in the first place – but it’s still a good idea to use the liquid S fertilizer.
With the cost of commercial N fertilizer still higher than it was pre-COVID, another form of this nutrient that pencils out quite favorably is broadcast medium red clover. Do this when snow is all gone from meadows except for lingering traces of stubborn snow drifts. This legume can be excellent green manure, fixing N, suppressing weeds and increasing corn yields.
As a slow-growing cool-season species, red clover is suitable to under-sowing into winter small grains in early spring. It continues to grow after small grain harvest – combined or baled, to be terminated, preferably by disking – in autumn or the following spring before corn planting.
Frost-seeding is a method of broadcasting where seeds are spread (usually spun) onto frozen ground, to be worked into the ground through the freezing/thawing action of soil. The N contributed by healthy red clover sods to the next crop in the rotation or to the accompanying awakening winter forage can be as much as 100 lbs./acre. But note that in a slow-warming spring, applying some of the much more reactive commercial N usually provides reasonable crop insurance.
One suggestion is to spin on urea, ammonium nitrate or UAN (a blend of the other two ingredients) as you would have in a normal cost year – a status which 2023-24, mercifully, is approaching.
With fertilizer costs being much lower than a year ago, spending some on soil testing may be more affordable. I look at testing this way: when fertilizer costs are reasonable, growers can afford to test. When they’re clearly too expensive, growers can’t afford not to test.
Jeff Cassim, general manager for Liquid Products, keeps fingers on the pulse of the fertilizer industry as well as, if not better than, anybody I know. He looked at four of 10 common fertilizer commodities – average values in short tons on Oct. 19: urea (Cincinnati) at $435 vs. a year earlier at $640; UAN (Cincinnati) at $298 vs. $593; mono-ammonium phosphate (Cincinnati) at $703 vs. $825; and muriate of potash (Vancouver) at $277 vs. $646.
Cassim said that overall fertilizer commodity activity is flat. Growers don’t want to stock up on fertilizer confronted with higher interest rates. “Markets have languished over the last three weeks and low [Mississippi Basin] river levels are making market players start worrying about decimated cargoes amid sandbars,” he said.