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6 ways to maximize winter forage yield

Farm Progress photo triticale being harvested
THINK TRITICALE: A hybrid of wheat and rye, triticale is a solid option for winter forage, but make sure to select an early variety. Even though it won’t grow as high as rye, triticale has many more tillers to support high yields.
Even though it’s warm, it’s best to get started on managing for maximum winter forage yields.

This year, we have had more reports of farms that harvested 4 to 5 tons of dry matter from flag leaf winter forage. The weather helped maximize yield, but the key steps that these farms followed set the crop up for a potential high yield.

In normal years, many farms achieve more than 3 tons of dry matter before planting their summer crop. In each case, the farms follow these six management steps:

1. Good fertility and pH. The first step goes without saying: You need a field with good fertility and pH that has not had its structure beat to death with tillage and heavy harvest equipment.

The flip side is that if you have a severely compacted field and the soil is dry, the best step is to deep-till and immediately plant winter triticale. The roots will stabilize the loosened soil as the first step in improving production.

Research has found corn yield increased by 4% to 7% on normal soils after a winter forage cover. Clay soils are further helped by increasing surface permeability seven-fold.

2. Select triticale. Early triticale varieties are only a day or two later than rye. You can push the spring nitrogen and get 20% crude protein with triticale, while the rye at that nitrogen rate would be flat on the ground.

Triticale is only two-thirds the height of rye but has many more tillers to support high yields. Just like with corn, a longer-season (later) variety will yield more than an earlier one, providing they are both planted on time. By selecting different varieties, you can spread out the harvest interval. This is becoming more critical as larger farms plant several hundred acres of this potentially heavy-yielding crop.

3. Select a top-yielding variety. In our variety trials, the top commercial variety was 40% higher yielding than a cheaper more common variety.

Buying Variety Not Stated (VNS) out of a farmer’s bin is even riskier as you don’t know what steps they took or did not take to maintain the germ for a high percentage that will actually sprout. It is like buying a steer to breed your cows; it doesn’t work.

My multiyear replicated research has not seen any advantage in planting over 100 pounds winter triticale seed per acre. Planting 120 or 150 pounds of seed as some suggest just means you are paying 20% to 50% more to establish the same crop.

If you are forced this year to plant later than the optimum two weeks before wheat grain planting, you should spend it instead on having a three-way fungicide seed treatment applied to the seed. In my replicated trials at the on-time planting date, the treated seed yielded 15% more than the control of untreated seed.

For the late planting date, the treated seed yielded 28% more than the untreated seed. Seed treatment has proven results and is cheaper than planting more seeds. We use seed treatment on our corn, alfalfa and soybeans. Why not winter forage?

4. Plant early. Plant at least two weeks before your wheat planting date. This has an absolutely huge impact on the yield potential for the next spring.

My 20 years of winter forage research, backed by multiple research projects across the Midwest and Northeast, confirms that planting date is the biggest driving factor in potential yield for the next spring. The early planting increases the number of tillers produced in the fall. It is simple: the more tillers, the more yield the next spring — provided there is enough water and fertilizer to support them.

By planting earlier — 10 days to two weeks before wheat for grain — it increased yields by 35%. The planting date can also affect harvest date with two days’ later harvest for roughly every week later you plant.

5. Feed the crop in fall. Our research found that up to 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre in fall increased spring yields 43% on a field without prior spring manure. The early planting and fall nitrogen significantly increased the number of tillers that set the spring yield potential.

Even with fall nitrogen application, we suggest sulfur —10 nitrogen to 1 sulfur. Do not delay planting the winter forage to spread manure. My research and that from Penn State found that you lose more delaying planting than you gain adding manure.

If you have a sod manure injector, you can apply all the spring nitrogen and sulfur needs as manure in November until the ground freezes. Some farmers in New York were still injecting into early January this past year.

The nitrogen in manure is in the ammonia form, which will attach to the soil particles and not leach or denitrify. In the spring when the ground warms, it will convert to nitrate and immediately be taken up by the winter forage, which is already green and growing.

Depending on the injector type, you may need to roll the field after to ensure a smooth surface for spring mowing. For fields that are flat or dish-shaped, and spring runoff collects, they are susceptible to snow mold that can kill the crop in that area. We have fertilized those areas just before snowfall with 2 quarts of liquid sulfur fertilizer and a spreader sticker. We have found that snow mold was suppressed where we fertilize this way.

6. Plan for next year’s spring rush. Before you get into fall harvest rush, now is the time to sit down and plan your rotation. Yes, right now, not in the winter.

This will set you up to get off to a better start next spring.

A critical step is to not plow sod fields for corn. A fall-killed sod makes spring no-till planting the earliest corn you can get in the ground. The already decaying sod is a dream to plant in as the soil is usually the consistency of potting soil. Issues such as hard surfaces are nonexistent. Problems such as armyworm and slugs are nonexistent.

Spraying sods rotating to corn between Oct. 1-15 — this is the Albany, N.Y., area, so adjust for your climatic region — when there are at least 6 inches of vegetation catches most tough perennials when they are translocating into their root systems for winter storage. This brings the herbicide to the deep root systems to get a sure kill.

We have consistently gotten excellent results with 0.75 of glyphosate and a quart of 2,4-D. The vegetation slowly breaks down in winter, so I have found that I had little to no erosion the next spring. The ground warms much faster with the excess residue decayed over winter.

In the spring, you no-till your corn directly into the mellow soil. There are few problems with penetration. Hair pinning is also not a problem.

The big advantage is that you can successfully no-till plant without wasting critical time, fuel and a pile of money tilling the ground during one of the busiest times of the season. As soon as the ground is at a minimum temperature at planting depth, you can simply plant without all the hassle. Spray it and you are done.

Our research results have shown that this system is far superior to spring-kill no-till or, even worse, harvesting haylage first and then planting into harvested sod. What little haylage you get is offset by lower corn yield and difficulty getting good stands.

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

TAGS: Management
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