Nursing Winter Forages to ProfitabilityDuring most of my post-formative years as an ag educator, I referred to small grains planted in late summer and/or early autumn as cover crops. I was strongly encouraged to stop using that term almost 11 years ago when I visited the Cornell Research Farm in Valatie, NY. During June and July of 2012, almost all of the Northeast, as well as most of the lower 48, suffered from Drought 2012 (a weather event so titled by climate experts).

At that time, Valatie research operations, as well as field work there, were managed by an acquaintance of mine, recently retired agronomy Extension agent Tom Kilcer, who still maintained his official status as a Certified Crop Advisor. Kilcer’s first year as a Columbia County field crops agent overlapped with my last year as dairy/field crops agent in Otsego County.

While visiting Valatie during late July 2012, I noticed small grain stubble left from recent combining. I told Tom, “These must have been your fall cover crops.” Almost snapping at me, he said, “Don’t call them cover crops – they’re winter forages. They’re doing a lot more than just holding onto soil.” I told him this wording was similar to the concept of “the glass being half full rather than half empty.” He liked that comparison.

With this introduction, let me tap into Kilcer’s May 2023 newsletter (at He wrote that for Northeast and North Central locations, autumn-planted triticale and rye are rapidly approaching harvest stage, a development driven by short bursts of warm weather. These regions now face extended rainy weather to delay harvest. The silver lining is that temperatures are supposed to be below 60º F during the day and in the lower 40s/upper 30s at night. When this happens, the quality of the forage often holds. He has seen headed triticale with the same digestibility as flag leaf when these conditions occur.

Quoting Kilcer directly: “If you are forced to make wetter forage, we suggest to chop it like we learned with sorghum – 3/4- to 1-inch long to reduced leachate. Use a homolactic inoculant and we suggest a higher rate to make up for potentially lower sugars. We have made perfectly fermented triticale at upper teens and lower 20[%] dry matter. We don’t like hauling all that water, but you may not have a choice with the weather hand dealt this year.”

In homolactic fermentation, the only product is almost exclusively lactic acid, and thus one molecule of glucose is ultimately converted to two such molecules. The lactic acid bacteria produce lactate as the major end product of the fermentation of carbohydrates (in this case provided in forages).

Here Kilcer was talking about haylage, not baleage. Inoculating baleage is a different (though not impossible) challenge. When forage moisture approaches and exceeds 70%, natural bacteria in the Clostridium genus tend to prevail and direct starch fermentation in the direction of butyric acid, an end product likened by trained noses (like those of most farmwives) to rancid butter.

Using a bacterial inoculant encourages microbial activity toward lactic acid fermentation and away from butyric acid. Another minus for butyric acid is that it can serve as a precursor to ketone bodies, which in turn can predispose a dry cow to acetonemia (ketosis) when she freshens.

Kilcer then addressed the subject of life after winter forage harvest. He explained that more farms have added the high quality and high yields of winter forage to their rotation schedule. Some have even gone as far as eliminating alfalfa. This raises the question: After winter forage harvest, what is the next crop?

One beauty of winter forage is that your options are open to what fits your farm best. Another beauty is that there is 60% less moisture under a harvested winter forage than under bare soil so you can safely traffic these fields in wetter spring than bare ground. (Think about driving on a sod compared to driving between corn stubble rows.)

Kilcer mentioned one farmer who got his corn planted on winter forage stubble in a wet spring and then had to wait for the non-winter-forage ground to dry out enough to accommodate corn planter and tractor. For dry springs (unlike this one), the soil could be in excellent shape for deep zone tillage to start to remove the compaction that may have been limiting yields.

The first step in the next rotation crop is to not remove stubble nor till the field. With winter forage stubble, growers have excellent cover with a mass of roots that go six to 16 inches deep in profile. This channels water and oxygen into the soil for maximum root growth. Those who have chiseled – or worse, disked – winter forage stubble have realized they made a mess of softball-sized lumps where the soil originally was.

In Kilcer’s words, “It takes a lot of work to beat them into a smooth seedbed again. Winter forage leaves soil in excellent shape for no-till. It makes no sense to work 43,560 square feet of soil 7 to 8 inches deep (moving 1,000 tons/acre) to simply have a fine seedbed an inch or two around a properly planted seed.”

Following the winter forage in the rotation, Kilcer continues drifting away from corn in favor of sorghum and its hybrids. He introduces a new crop into the rotation, because its season dovetails well into that of winter triticale – BMR forage sorghum. Male sterile BMR sorghum is the latest advance in producing very high-quality forage to support high milk/component production in dairy cows.

Concluding with a quote from Kilcer: “No sorghum ‘likes’ to be planted no-till into winter forage stubble. Applying manure broadcast and immediately lightly incorporating it will both capture the 75% of nitrogen normally lost and break up the allelopathic compounds that inhibit the growth of the sorghum species planted after. The reverse, planting triticale no-till into sorghum stubble, works very well.”