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SWITCH TO PEARL: Brown midrib pearl millet planted in early July can produce up to 12.2 tons of 35% dry matter silage, or 4.3 tons of dry matter per acre, which is more than alfalfa.

Poor first cutting? Consider these 4 warm-season options

The goal is to get a warm-season haylage that provides high-quality forage by September.

By Tom Kilcer

For many farmers, first cutting has been much less than expected due to extensive legume stand loss over the winter.

Those with alfalfa and grass are much better off, as the grass can be fed with nitrogen and sulfur. Fertilizer, combined with the cool temperatures and copious rainfall, should provide the same yield so long as you’re at a 4-inch cutter bar height.

But how can we replace haylage? There are two answers.

First, go to a heavier corn or BMR sorghum silage diet by planting on the killed fields.

Second, switch to an alternative crop such as brown midrib pearl millet.

Remember, the whole point is to plant a warm-season haylage-type crop that gives high-quality forage and is harvested before the beginning of September. You then spray the re-growing stubble and immediately plant triticale winter forage for the earliest high-quality forage next spring.

Here are four options to consider:

1. Pearl millet

In past research, pearl millet planted in early July produced 12.2 tons of 35% dry matter silage, or 4.3 tons of dry matter per acre, which is more than alfalfa. It is much higher than other sorghum species and would have been even higher if we had more nitrogen to supply the crop.

The 30% NDF was the highest of the crops we grew. It held until the head started in the boot, which was about Sept. 5. Pearl millet is only half as tall as sorghum sudan but is much denser. In a good stand, it is impossible to walk over the ground and touch the soil.

If you cut it with a directionless corn head, you will leave one-third to one-half of the yield of digestible forage in the field. We suggest mowing with a hay mower wide swath. Carefully ted it after two hours of drying and then chop.

Using this system is also suggested because of the high moisture content of the crop. We suggest a minimum 3/4 to 1-inch length of chop and a homolactic inoculant. We are testing a newer, taller BMR pearl millet that works even better as it can be directly chopped, but it has not been commercially released yet.

2. Fall spring oats

Several times we have planted spring oats in early August and it produced tremendous growth. The forage quality was so high that we called it “green grain.”

It is simple but not foolproof to grow. Unless you take proper steps, it can get screwed up.

For more northern areas, planting the first of August is possible; further south it is usually planted later. Unfortunately, these delays reduce yield, but the reason is to wait for the cool nights of August to reduce the aphid population. We planted oats once at the end of July and by the end of August all the oats were dead as aphids brought in barley yellow dwarf virus. Aphids can infect the plant with this virus in less than 30 minutes. We strongly suggest using a neonic seed treatment as they are effective in limiting aphid feeding.

Cool nights with heavy dew seem to knock the aphids down and reduce the potential for loss. A moist fall can hammer this plan with a major outbreak of rust that will reduce quality and yield.

A suggested practice is to apply a fungicide to the oats when they are starting stem elongation. If you have a cereal leaf beetle outbreak an insecticide can be applied at the same time as the fungicide.

We suggest 3 bushels per acre of grain-type oats. My research, which duplicates earlier work in Ohio, found no yield increase from increased fall oat seeding rate. Grain oats will go through the life cycle quicker and will be ready by the end of September when you still have some heat to dry it for silage. If you are not going to be able to plant until later or must harvest or graze later, then the slower forage-oat type is recommended.

Be liberal with manure and immediately incorporate it to capture the ammonia nitrogen. In a 2010 study we had a relatively low yield of 2 tons dry matter per acre due to extremely dry weather. Even with the low yields we removed 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre as protein.

Because much of this nitrogen must be rapidly available, high manure application rates — in our case 10,000 to 12,000 gallons an acre incorporated on low P and K fields — are justified.

If you applied manure before planting, it is not recommended that you feed this to dry cows. In a recent study on a field that soil tested very low in potassium, with one heavy manure application the potassium levels were 3.36% in the oats. In an earlier study on a high-fertility field we reached potassium levels of over 5%. Again, this is not for dry cows.

For high-producing dairy cows, mow as soon as the flag leaf is out. This forage will help to offset some of the poorer quality forage we were forced to harvest this spring due to weather. Do not wait for the traditional boot stage unless you need more volume of forage at boot stage. The reason is because the cool nighttime temperatures inhibit respiration of the most digestible parts, and they accumulate in the plant. Frost only hits the tops and the rest of the plant keeps growing.

We often have green oats in November or until the first snow. As soon as it hits flag leaf, mow wide swath. You are trying to dry something that can yield two to three times more tons of dry matter than a heavy first-cutting alfalfa. As soon as the top has a light grey cast — pick up a surface plant and see if it is greener underneath — hit it with the tedder to get the lower layers spread and drying.

It is critical to ensile it the same day you mow because of the very high sugar levels. Leaving it overnight in warmer temperatures burns off the sugars and produces higher populations of Clostridia and higher levels of butyric acid. With same-day haylage these are reduced or eliminated, even at higher moisture levels.

On the flip side, very high sugar levels will speed the process and produce an excellent fermented forage if inoculated.

3. Fall spring oats with clover or grass seeding

Some would be tempted to do this, but I tried it and the seeding failed.

Properly fertilized and planted oats completely shaded the ground and the only places the clover grew was where the drill skipped the oats.

I’ve been there, done that, and I don’t suggest it!

4. Fall spring oats and winter triticale

This is something where we planted 100 pounds of oats with 80 pounds of triticale. After the oat harvest the triticale continued to grow and produced an excellent forage the next year.

It is essential that you mow the oats with the cutter bar set at 3.5 to 4 inches. Where we did the triticale thrived; where we mowed less than 3.5 inches the triticale died.

We fertilized the triticale the next spring and had an excellent harvest.

This can give you two very high-quality forage crops in one planting.

Kilcer is a certified crop adviser in Kinderhook, N.Y.

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