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Serving: WI

Prepare to harvest cover crop forage this spring

TAGS: Forage
Farm Progress Cover crops in field
PRIORITIZE FIELDWORK: Cover crop harvest typically coincides with first-crop alfalfa harvest, corn planting and manure application, so make a plan.
Dairy Team: Manage harvest for optimal quality and quantity of feed

Last fall’s harvest wrapped up unusually early for most Wisconsin farmers. It was a welcome change and allowed farms to plant cover crops for the first time or expand the number of acres beyond what they’ve typically planted.

In either case, there are a few things you can start discussing and planning for now to set up the farm for the best chance at success:

Communicate early and often. One of the best things to do in preparation for harvest is to meet early, well before harvest, with your agronomist and nutritionist to discuss and agree on goals. Ask the nutritionist what kind of forage quality and quantity are needed based on the farm’s existing inventories. Then discuss when optimal harvest time is to achieve those goals. It may be a lot sooner than you expect or it could be later depending on what groups will be fed and how big the deficit in forage inventory may be. Also, be open about experience levels with cover crops.

Work with people experienced with cover crops. It’s okay if a consultant doesn’t have much experience with cover crops, but it will be important to find people who do. Maybe there’s another consultant within the team, an extension educator, someone at the conservation department, or other professional who has some additional experience. It will be important, especially for those new to planting and harvesting cover crops, to have someone who’s knowledgeable and experienced to help troubleshoot issues as they come up.

Prioritize fieldwork, make a plan. It’s going to be important to manage the harvest for optimal quality and quantity, much like any other crop. However, cover crop harvest typically coincides with first crop alfalfa harvest, corn planting, and manure application. It has a lot to compete with and cover crop harvest can sometimes be the last item on the list. Communicating regularly with the farm’s agronomist and nutritionist is key to assess crop progress and help plan and prioritize fieldwork. To make good quality feed, especially if feeding to the lactating herd, harvest timing is the single greatest factor that determines quality and quantity.

Harvest at the optimal time. Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that cereal grain forages, such as rye and triticale, should be harvested in spring at boot stage for lactating cows and between heading and soft dough for heifers. While some farms have been able to successfully feed rye or triticale silage to dry cows, this is generally not recommended for cows within 21 days of calving due to the forage’s high potassium content and risk of milk fever. It’s always important to work closely with your farm’s nutritionist before making any changes.

Making plans now can save some growing pains later on and position the farm for the best chance of success.

Binversie is the Brown County Extension agriculture agent.

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