Waking Up Winter ForagesThis column is written on the last day of winter. Six days ago, the NYS DEC ordered a mandatory outdoor burn ban effective until further notice. The compulsory burn ban is based on the average expected late winter/early spring conditions. These conditions normally include little or no prolonged snow cover, lots of wind, dead vegetation left from last year’s annuals and perennials that are just starting to resurrect from a long winter’s nap. Very common strong March winds further dry out already crisp annual vegetation – making it resemble tinder rather than something that was alive just months earlier.

Normally this time of year crocuses are already blooming in our front yard, being serviced by feral honeybees and bumblebees. A four-decade-old birch overlooks those flowers and their six-legged guests. But not this year thus far. Less than a week ago, most of the Northeast received one to two feet of snow. When snowfall ended, one night-time temperature dipped down into the low teens, freezing over mud puddles quite nicely.

But things should soon get back to normal weather-wise. Birch trees will start to bud. Sugar maple sap will get cloudy, resulting in maple syrup that some refer to as road tar-grade (my personal favorite). And winter forages will begin resurrecting themselves from dormancy. In that botanical grouping we find the following “fall-planted” winter annuals: wheat, rye, barley, triticale and speltz. Increasingly, the term “winter forages” is replacing the term “cover crops” in grower jargon. I believe that the newer term portrays a more proactive approach to professional cropsmanship than did the older phrase.

Of the autumn-planted winter crops, triticale is less hardy than wheat. Rye is the hardiest winter cereal. Over time, it was discovered that winter triticale can function well as a forage or hay crop, producing more biomass than winter wheat or barley. Land grant agronomists seldom compare winter triticale to winter rye, since the rye has a much greater tendency to produce volunteer plants the next year.

Generally in the Northeast, winter forages hit their optimum level of maturity – barely forming seed heads – between May 10 and 20. This is usually 10 days before perennial forages on neighboring fields would yield the most digestible dry matter (DDM) per acre. Autumn-planted winter forages start waking up as the last snow finishes melting, while soil temperatures are still in the low 40s. So the triticale can be harvested usually at 24 – 30 inches in height as soil temperature commonly hits the 50º F milestone – the same point at which corn can be safely planted.

In the much more immediate future, let us examine our winter forages again, be they rye, triticale, wheat, barley or speltz. These cold-footed crops serve well as a disposal site for manure applications during late autumn and winter. Most small grain experts believe that triticale can metabolize up to 70 pounds of nitrogen during the five-month period of November – March. Semi-solid manure averages about 1% actual N. An acre of triticale can be expected to process and store the nutrients from about 7,000 pounds of that manure over the five-month period (70 pounds is 1%).

This math gets shaky when it comes to rye; because rye is taller than triticale, most agronomists recommend that growers limit N applications for Secale (rye’s genus) to 50 pounds during the November – March period. Because of rye’s height – one to two more feet than triticale – much extra N commonly causes lodging. Thus, presuming a typical 1% actual N in semi-solid manure, we should limit autumn/winter pounds/acre of that soil amendment to 5,000 pounds.

Moving forward to about Labor Day, I recommend growers plant the cheaper (compared to triticale) bin-run winter rye seed before planting the “grass seed” mixture next spring, because these cold-footed perennial crop seeds can be planted into the disked-up winter rye sod. It’s a good idea to allow a week to 10 days to “mellow out” rye’s allelopathic (natural weed-killer) properties.

Many farmers growing winter triticale for forage are getting yields equal to or above what they expected but are disappointed with protein levels. Opposite high soybean meal prices, lost forage protein hurts. Cornell-monitored field crop research tallied in 2020 showed that a three-ton winter forage dry matter yield/acre removes 192 pounds of N at 20% crude protein. Inadequate N and sulfur not only limit the crop protein test, but also drain the soil of available N. Thus when corn is planted next in the rotation, it does poorly for the first couple of weeks.

A “treat-the-symptom-not-the-cause” cure involves putting some starter N fertilizer with the corn seed. The better answer is to put enough N on the winter triticale, then any N unused during cold weather will be there to supply the corn. Insufficient N on a high-yielding winter triticale forage not only reduces forage crude protein but can undermine performance of next year’s corn crop. Despite banded fertilizer, fledgling corn seedlings are yellow and slow growing until soil organic matter releases more N.

Some growers spread manure and immediately plow it down in early September before planting winter forages. Penn State researchers stress that this practice is not advisable in the Quaker State, nor in the rest of the Northeast, because the savings on fertilizer does not offset the yield loss caused by later planting. Growers are much further ahead to get the triticale in the ground around Labor Day, then inject the manure in November.

Penn research has documented storing of up to 120 pounds N in the autumn vegetative growth. Cornell Animal Scientist Quirine Ketterings, Ph.D., sums it up this way: “In the fall, for every additional pound of dry matter you are growing, you store 22% crude protein, or 70 pounds nitrogen per ton of dry matter. This reduces the amount you have to inject in November or December – or purchase next spring – to meet all the crop’s nitrogen and sulfur needs.”