Increase Winter Forage Yield 60% This title is what Certified Crop Advisor Tom Kilcer assigned his August 2022 newsletter. The title also serves as a timely subject for growers attempting to optimize the performance of the next growing season, already in its planning stages ( I’ll hit the newsletter’s high spots, then offer my own insights. Both Kilcer and I are very concerned about the country’s precipitation (or lack thereof), as it impacts agriculture. In last week’s “Crop Comments,” I wrote about a part of southwest Colorado where land is being pulled out of farming permanently for two reasons: first, the landowners want to retire from farming; second, neighbors wishing to continue farming will have the retiring producers’ groundwater “quota” to help produce crops.

Because of far-ranging drought in the Southwest and northern Mexico, huge numbers of Mexican cattle are being marketed as far away as our Midwest, due to feed and water shortages on their home turf. The North American Drought Monitor, a joint effort of U.S. and Canadian federal ag departments, documents “extreme to exceptional” drought from Oregon to South Texas as well as Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. According to a New York Times article early this month, the Mexican state logged zero rainfall this past March, the first time that area and month have had no rain in over a century. Perhaps more graphic than Nuevo Laredo’s water crisis is the fact that the water level of Lake Mead (where the Hoover Dam captures, then releases, the Colorado River) is down by 172 feet. This is due to three factors: smaller than normal Rocky Mountain snowpack melt, less than normal local (already scant) rainfall and excessively high demand downstream (southern California).

Motivated by the need to improve forage yields – very much confronted by water issues – Kilcer stressed that for a number of farms, forage supplies this year may be very tight. First there was the lack of rain, and then too much rain arriving too late. In his July 2022 newsletter, he covered what we can do this autumn for an emergency forage crop, one which will be harvested next spring. One crop that can be planted this autumn, promising growers high yields of very high-quality forage earlier in spring than any other crop, is what he calls winter forage. He stressed that winter grains, specifically winter triticale, have been “increasing acreage at a tremendous rate for the past 12 years as more farmers put their money there because the crop makes money. A bonus is that the very high digestible winter forage when added to the ration eliminates the formerly common ‘summer slump.’”

Planting early is mandatory for high yield winter triticale. Kilcer said that for the Albany, NY, area, the Sept. 10 on-time planting in several trials produced a 25% – 35% higher yield than the traditional later planted. This greatly benefits profit/return for the crop. Quoting Kilcer: “On-time planting means it needs to be in the ground a minimum of two weeks BEFORE the wheat planting date for your area. This is critical for both establishing a plant that can take the winter better, and to increase the number of tillers that are critical for spring yield. A bonus is that the earlier you plant, the earlier the crop comes off in spring. The planting date can be useful if you have considerable acreage to plant and harvest. Plant your earlier varieties first, and then plant later varieties later. This will spread the harvest window, so you are less likely to get caught with everything ready at once, and a week of rain when you wanted to mow. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Kilcer nixed the old farmer’s tale of planting later and just using more seed, because this practice only increases your cost, not yield. Seed supply is tight; order early and don’t plant more than what makes you money. Replicated research showed no benefit from a seeding rate over 100 lbs./acre. Also, there was no significant yield benefit associated with planting more seed to counter planting late. He recommended, “If you are caught late, then plant seed with a three-way seed treatment. For little cost, it boosted our yield 28% over untreated seed, but yield was still less than planting on time.”

The other factor is the amount of nitrogen (and sulfur) applied in autumn. This is very different than planting for grain. Kilcer wants lots of tillers, and N helps drive that. In his early research in New York, planting on time or earlier, they determined that 60 pounds of N (and some S) were needed to maximize the next spring yields; he likes a 10:1 ratio of N:S. (Note: two S-bearing amino acids, methionine and cysteine, are critical for protein synthesis.) Adding autumn N increased spring yields 20% – 30%. The autumn nitrogen uptake for the early planting date was more than or equal to the amount applied, so it is environmentally sound.

A good triticale-based winter forage harvest will get the 2023 growing season off to a good start, possibly yielding enough hay crop to sell some to producers farther west in more drought-stricken areas. The bottom line is that the combination of management steps of planting on time with autumn N – vs. planting late with no autumn N – means 60% increase in yield the next spring (associated with planting on time, accompanied by 60 pounds of the N/S application in early spring).

I’m anticipating that winter 2022/2023 will be tighter for Northeast hay supply than 2021/2022 was. The previous winter (2020/2021) saw many farmers trying to locate decent hay to buy in late March and early April 2021. I’m recommending that farmers thinking they might possibly need to buy hay in 2022/2023 start lining it up sooner rather than later. A good place to start that would be this paper’s hay for sale want ads, particularly if sellers forage-tested what they’re peddling.