This is the time of year for crop growers when the days are not long enough to accomplish all the work that needs doing. Often it seems that folks assigned these tasks need to keep their blood caffeine levels high. In the Northeast, the season is increasingly shaping up as a growing season that transitions rapidly from winter to summer in a matter of days. Originally, the longer-term forecast in late April was that the Northeast would be colder and wetter than normal. After all, three weeks ago (as I write) most of Central New York was mired in the throes of one of the worst heavy snow-prolonged power outages in decades.
The forecast has now been changed to hot and dry. It’s ironic that by the middle of May, we Northeasterners are probably receiving average growing degree days (GDDs). This means that the manure that couldn’t get spread because it was too wet, the corn that couldn’t get planted because it was too cold and wet and the winter forage and haylage that was growing very slowly all need taking care of now! Non-superhumans can’t do all three at once, so what do we do? How do we prioritize all these tasks that need doing right away?
The only one of these three dilemma horns that changes drastically in profitability with time, during May’s GDD package, is the winter forage and haylage. When they are ready, there is nothing more important or which will have a bigger impact on the profitability of your production than getting the haylage in as high-quality forage. Profitability drop can be measured in days. Winter forage (specifically triticale) is ready first and drops the fastest. With high temperatures forecast very soon, growers need to be ready to roll as soon as the sun is out. With normal temperatures, triticale (and rye and wheat) goes from Stage 8 to optimum Stage 9 in about five days. Generally, Stage 9 (also called flag-leaf stage) means that the partially formed grain head can be felt between one’s thumb and forefinger, although still covered by the leaf. With high temperatures, this process moves fast, soon morphing into Stage 10, where the grain head is unfurled from the leaf. With extensive acreage, the normal planting season will spread the maturity. For every week planting is delayed in autumn, the crop matures two days later.
Thus, harvesting winter forage fields in the order they were planted usually allows one to get it all in as top quality. Very high temperatures (above 90º) will drive all the winter grains to a rapid heading. Thus, you may need to start harvesting at Stage 8 on some fields so that the last harvested will not be much past Stage 9 (if you’re seeking milk cow quality forage). If nights remain cold, you could still harvest at the early head and have high quality. Since the winter forage’s progress is driven by the date of planting and GDDs, each location must be judged individually. If you’re trying to get haylage done in order to get manure injected and corn planted, we strongly suggest you use the wide-swath same-day haylage practice (where swath is at least 85% of the cut-bar width). This increases both forage quality reaching the mouth of the cow and gives you more days of nice weather to speed the crop harvest. The resulting forage dry matter usually ends up around 35%. As soon as the winter forage is harvested, it’s time to start harvesting wide-swath same day perennial forage haylage.
Thus, the perennial fields are next, starting with those that have the highest percentage of grass, finishing with straight alfalfa. Digestible neutral detergent fiber for alfalfa drops about 1%/day (grass drops faster) when you go past optimum harvest. That represents 0.55 pounds of lost milk per cow per day! Every day you delay costs money! Not so with corn silage. The corn may be a bigger crop and more important in farmers’ minds, but a delay in planting in order to harvest haylage has very little impact on quality and quantity.
The rest of the season is a major driver of quality. According to field crops professor Joe Lauer, Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin-Madison), you can go well into late May and still get nearly all the yield possible. Some years, even planting into early June did not reduce corn silage yields, according to Lauer’s research. (This is because corn plant breeders, in the last few decades, have greatly reduced the yield gap between short season and longer season corn varieties.)
This was also true for the grain content. His data are especially critical today, because so much of the early season was not conducive to growing corn. An added factor is one that most agronomists have seen all too often: Farmers panicked, mixing seed corn with mud, and took a huge yield loss and quality loss from low grain production. Waiting until the soil is at the correct dryness to plant (which means kicking loose some dust), even with a significant delay, will produce a higher-yielding crop with higher grain than the “mudded-in” one. We’ve all seen terribly compacted fields, even wounded by the corn planter and the planter tractor. Wait until the soil is ready. The punchline to the joke: When it’s time to harvest your winter forage (then perennial haylage), there are no other cropping practices on the farm that will give you as much profit. It’s a reward for getting them harvested on time. Hopefully we’ve shown that the corn can wait.