July 20, 2023
Let’s make this clear: Winter forage is not a harvested cover crop.
Winter forage is selected for high yield and winter hardiness, deliberately planted on time with a drill, and fall-fertilized for maximum yield potential.
One big difference is that with a higher level of management, winter forage gives soil and environmental benefits equal to cover crops on steroids.
Here are nine steps to maximize your winter forage production this fall:
1. Choose either rye or triticale. The first choice in winter forage is either rye grain or triticale. Both yield well and both have similar digestibility, if harvested at the same (flag leaf) stage. Rye may survive better if just tossed out or planted late, but neither step supports high yields. Newer triticale varieties mature almost the same day as rye, if they are planted the same day.
Research has found that rye has a narrower harvest window, which is difficult to hit. The biggest problem with rye, compared to triticale, is the standability. Rye is about 25% taller than triticale, but most triticale varieties have been selected for dense tillering. Triticale produces high yields from many more tillers on a shorter plant.
More importantly, the shorter triticale will stand and support much higher nitrogen rates. Rye at the same rate would be flat on the ground. Thus, triticale can result in much higher crude protein of 18% or more with good management.
2. Don’t mix them. Under no circumstances do we suggest you plant a mix of winter rye and triticale. It is impossible to get the two to mature at the same rate. I know a farmer who bought cheap, bin-run seed that was a mix. The rye was at flag leaf stage the next spring when the triticale was only half-grown.
If he would have taken it at the quality stage for rye, he would have lost half the triticale yield. If he waited for the triticale, he would have had high-quality triticale mixed in with rye straw. Been there, done that. Don’t do it.
3. Avoid VNS. Buying variety not stated (VNS) out of a farmer’s bin is even riskier. You don’t know what steps they took, or did not take, to maintain the germ for a high percentage that will sprout. Farms growing malt barley have found that you must dry it carefully and at the right temperature or the seed will not sprout (malt). The same with triticale. If it is not dried and handled properly, it is like buying a steer to breed your cows. It doesn’t work.
4. Plant at right seeding rate. Just like with corn and sorghum, there is a right seeding rate. My multiyear replicated research has not seen any advantage in planting over 100 pounds of winter triticale seed per acre regardless of the planting date. As some suggest, planting 120 or 150 pounds of seed means paying 20% to 50% more for the same yield. If you are forced to plant late, using seed with a three-way fungicide will give you more yield.
5. Use treated seed. A step many seed companies ignore is having a three-way seed treatment on the seed. We have not figured out why, but this has a major benefit on the establishment and final yield of winter grains. Nearly all farms plant treated seed for intensely managed, high-yield wheat for grain. Why not use this same benefit for high-yield forage?
In replicated plots, a triticale planting with treated seed grew much faster and tillered more when planted on time. It was nearly double in height going into winter. In the spring, it yielded 15% more than the untreated plots. When planted late (not recommended for high yield but it happens), the treated seed yielded 28% more than the untreated seed the next spring.
Planting treated seeds helps recover some of the effects of late planting. It only raises the cost of the seed a minor amount. If you are that hysterical about the slight cost increase, reducing the planting rate on early planting from 100 pounds to 90 pounds per acre would pay for this extra treatment. You need to order your seed early to get this benefit as the winter forage seed providers are not used to doing this.
6. Change to smooth-sleeved tubes. You should consider changing the drop tubes on your drill from accordion to smooth-sleeved type. This has a major impact on the uniformity of the stand. My 1950s drill with sleeved tubes planted more uniformly than a brand-new $20,000 drill that had accordion tubes.
Ideally, you would place the seeds one at a time in the soil. This is called indexing, or singulating. We switched to that with corn planting and saw a major yield improvement. It works with small grains, too.
The best systems are the newer air drills that index each seed. When I planted with a sleeved drill and an indexing plot planter, the indexed seed yielded 22% higher in replicated plots.
7. Plant on time. Two critical key steps for a high-yielding winter triticale foundation are to plant on time and fall fertilizer. Planting on time is the 500-pound gorilla in the yield room. My research yields puttered along at 2 to 2.5 tons dry matter per acre until I quit planting at the same time as wheat. Triticale does best when planted early to maximize number of tillers. We strongly suggest planting winter forage two weeks before wheat planting date for your area. This is the most important factor in setting up the crop for high yield potential next spring.
When I moved the planting date earlier the yield response the next spring was tremendous. Farmers who have followed this management step now are harvesting 3 to 4 tons dry matter per acre at flag leaf the next spring. The crop should go into the winter as a solid stand with no soil showing between the rows. If the soil shows, you have not maximized yield potential.
8. Fertilize. Another factor for establishing high yield potential is to supply a minimum 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre in fall. This drives fall growth and tiller production for next spring’s yield.
This can be as simple as applying 60 pounds of nitrogen and 6 pounds of sulfur at planting time. If you heavily manured the field before the previous corn crop, the organic fraction of the manure will still be released after the corn is harvested and can supply all the needed nitrogen and sulfur. If the field is a runout hay crop that was killed at the end of August, it will also supply enough nitrogen before cold temperatures stop the organic matter breakdown.
9. But don’t delay planting. My research and that of Penn State has found that you should not delay planting to apply manure. Even with added manure nitrogen, you lose more yield potential if you delay planting. In those cases, apply some nitrogen at planting and save the manure to be injected after soil temperatures drop below 50 degrees F.
At this late point, you can save a pile of money and apply manure in an environmentally sound manner by injecting it with a rolling coulter manure injector. If you set it at a shallow angle and go less than 3 mph, few if any stones will be brought up. One pass with a roller the next day will ensure the field is smooth for next spring’s mowing.
Planting early with nitrogen to boost fall growth will not produce excess growth that winter-kills. We clearly saw that in multiple replicated planting date and nitrogen trials. What kills the stand is snow mold that occurs when water collects in low areas and tire tracks during winter thaws. These are perfect conditions for snow mold to grow.
Bigger plants are usually more successful at staying above it and growing out of the mold. For flat or pocketed fields that turn into small ponds in winter thaws, you can fertilize those areas by spraying with liquid sulfur fertilizer and a spreader sticker in late November before the snow. This has stopped the snow mold.
Kilcer is a certified crop adviser in Rutledge, Tenn., formerly of Kinderhook, N.Y.
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