This spring some farms were able to harvest four to five tons of dry matter from flag leaf-stage winter forage. This grouping includes winter-hardy varieties of wheat, rye, triticale, barley and speltz. Weather helped yields, but there were steps that these farms followed that set the crop up for potential high yields. It’s more common to achieve three tons of winter forage dry matter per acre before planting summer crops.
High achieving farms carefully follow several top management steps. The first step is to have fields with good fertility and pH, fields that have not had soil structure beat to death with tillage and heavy harvest equipment. The flip side (with such damaged fields) is that if you have severely compacted fields with dry soil, it’s best to deep till and immediately plant winter triticale. Roots will stabilize loosened soil as the first step in improving production. Land grant research found that corn yield increased by 4% – 7% on normal soils following winter forage covers. Clay soils are further helped by increasing surface permeability by as much as seven-fold.
Secondly, choose triticale seed with rapid maturity and quality. Early triticale varieties are only a couple days later than rye. Growers can push spring nitrogen and get 20% crude protein with triticale, while rye at that N rate would be flat on the ground. Rye is very prone to lodging, with N/acre rates exceeding 50 lbs. Triticale is only two-thirds the height of rye but boasts more tillers to support high yields. Just like with corn, a longer season variety yields more than an earlier one – provided they are both planted on time. By selecting varieties, we can spread out harvest interval – increasingly critical with larger farms and bigger acreages.
Thirdly, select top-yielding varieties. In Cornell variety trials, the top commercial variety was 40% higher yielding than a cheaper, older common variety. Using Variety-Not-Stated seed, out of the grower’s or neighbor’s bin, is even riskier: you don’t know what steps were taken to ensure germinability. Regarding seeding rates, multiple year replicated research shows no advantage for planting over 100 lbs. winter triticale seed/acre. Planting 120 – 150 lbs. of seed just means seed costs are 20% – 50% higher to establish the same crop. Growers forced this year to plant later than the optimum two weeks before wheat grain planting – instead of spending money on extra seed – will do better to spend it on a three-way fungicide applied to seed. In replicated trials in New York State, at the on-time planting date, the treated seed yielded 15% more than the control of untreated seed. For late planting dates, treated seed yielded 28% more than untreated seed. It doesn’t make sense for growers to use seed treatment on corn, alfalfa and soybean but not winter forage.
Fourthly, it’s critical to plant triticale early, at least two weeks before the local wheat planting date. This enormously impacts yield potential for next spring. Over two decades of winter forage research, with cooperating farmers, backed by multiple research projects across the Midwest and Northeast, confirm that planting date is the biggest factor influencing potential yield for the following spring. Early planting increases the number of tillers produced in autumn; more tillers mean bigger yield next spring (provided water and fertilizer aren’t limiting). Planting earlier increased yields 35%. Planting date also impacts harvest date, with roughly two days later harvest for every week of delayed planting.
Fifthly, feed the crop in autumn. New York field research found that up to 60 lbs. of N/acre in autumn increased spring triticale yields 43% on fields without prior spring/summer manure. The early planting and autumn N application significantly increased the number of tillers, which in turn set the spring yield potential. Even with autumn N application, we suggest sulfur (10:1 N:S ratio). Don’t delay planting the winter forage to accommodate spreading manure. Field research from New York and Penn State found that we lose more delaying planting than we gain by adding manure.
Sixthly, folks with sod manure injectors can apply all the spring N and S needs as manure in November until the ground freezes. Some farmers in New York were able to inject last January. Manure N is in the ammonia (NH3) form, which attaches to soil particles and won’t leach or denitrify. When the ground warms come spring, NH3 converts to nitrate, immediately taken up by winter forage, which is already green and growing. Depending on the injector type, you may need to roll the field after injection to assure a smooth surface for spring mowing.
Finally, fields that are flat or dish-shaped and thus prone to collecting spring runoff are susceptible to snow mold that can kill the crop in that area. Fertilizing those areas just before snowfall with two quarts of liquid S fertilizer and a spreader sticker has effectively countered snow mold.
Let me switch the subject from general forage management to roughage mouth-harvested by ruminants. I was a recent guest at a pasture walk seminar hosted by grass-fed organic farmers Chuck and Mary Blood and daughters at Rocky Top Acres in southern Madison County. The seminar was sponsored by Organic Valley farmers’ cooperative. The main speaker was the co-op’s ruminant nutritionist, Sylvia Abel-Caines, Ph.D., DVM. Abel-Caines addressed many of the finer points of dairy cattle-managed intensive grazing. I had talked to her by phone before and was glad to meet her in person. I told her that I work diligently to get graziers to pull cattle off a paddock when average forage height is down to four inches. She immediately responded, “Six inches. Recovery comes on much better with a six-inch stubble than a four-inch stubble.” I almost told her that I have enough trouble getting folks to remove cattle from a four-inch stubble, let alone a six-inch stubble, but instead I thanked her for her advice, promising to relay it to the people I work with.