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Consider these 7 options to secure early spring forage

Some seed supplies will likely be short this year due to 2019’s wet weather, so be sure to order early.

Tom Kilcer

January 15, 2020

5 Min Read
Two tractors cut haylage in wide swaths
PLAN FOR FORAGE OPTIONS: Haylage cut on time and in wide swaths can provide a good option for farmers who think they’ll be short on forage in the spring. Farm Progress

“A drought will scare a farmer to death, a flood will starve him to death.” This is an old saying that accurately depicts the effects of wet weather.

As a result of last year’s weather, we need to redefine “wet” for many places because of how deep the water was in some fields. In hard-hit areas, farms are short or potentially short on forage. If you’re short on forage, make sure to schedule a meeting with your nutritionist to see exactly how much forage you will have and how far it will get you this spring with your rations.

Get your seed now

Last year, many farmers found that the seed types and varieties they wanted for emergency forage were extremely short or completely unavailable. Northern areas were last to plant, and tons of emergency annuals were already sold or planted earlier on acreage to the south, which had their own problems with bad weather.

Many seed companies last year also had significant problems producing seed. BMR sorghums and sorghum-sudans, traditional emergency forages, were completely sold out last year, so there is no carryover to this year. Adding to the problem, bad weather hit at sorghum harvest, so supplies of certain varieties will be problematic.

Short-season corn, popular as an early crop to offset dwindling forage supplies, is grown in the same area where many acres were underwater. Oats produced for spring planting were sucked up and used to produce a late-season emergency forage last fall.

Red Clover and cool-season grasses were also hit by weather and will be short.

What can you do now? Sit down and detail what crop is on each field and place your orders if you have any hope to get the seed you want.

Here are seven options if you think you’ll need some additional forage this spring:

1.Winter forage. The earliest crop available will be winter forage. Fertilized and harvested at flag leaf stage, you can add 2 to 4 tons of dry matter per acre to the feed supply before the leaves are even on the trees.

Unfortunately, many winter forage acres last fall still had corn on them and were not been able to be planted, or they went in very late. Later-planted forage will still give you a crop, but yields will be down.

2. Cool-season grasses. Right after winter forage harvest, literally within a day or two, comes the cool-season grasses. Fertilized with nitrogen and sulfur, they will take advantage of cool, moist conditions and can produce high yields of quality forage that can sustain top milk production.

Most farms don’t harvest grasses in time for top dairy forage. Cornell professor Debbie Cherney has found that stands of nearly all grass will be ready to harvest when your alfalfa is only 13 inches tall — when dandelions turn white. Immediately top-dress after first cutting to take advantage of the cool spring and ­early summer weather. For rapid regrowth, each cutting of grass needs the cutter bar set at 4 inches. Cutting closer than that will devastate the next cutting.  

3. Haylage. On-time haylage is the third earliest crop. Wide-swath cutting for same-day haylage can boost the energy 17% over next-day haylage, giving you more milk-producing nutrients in every ton harvested.

4. Oats. Forage oats planted alone will be the next harvested crop. It can be no-tilled early into the previous year’s corn, providing it’s not a rutted mess. Either the grain type or the slightly later, but higher-yielding forage type can give you good quality. Harvesting at boot stage will enable you to come right back in and no-till a sorghum-sudan or short-season sorghum for summer double-crop production.

5. Legume and oats. Legume seedings with forage oats are the next yield boost. This is not always the preferred method for seedings but seeding with an oat nurse crop will give you several tons an acre of high-quality forage cut at boot stage in late June.

I suggest setting the cutter bar to 4 inches in height to leave as many leaves and regrowth points on the alfalfa-clover under-crop. What you potentially lose in oat forage you will gain in new seeding growth.

6. Sorghum-sudan. Many farms are thinking of planting BMR sorghum-sudan, or sudangrass, as an emergency forage for early harvest. I suggest that you come in after early planted forage oats, so you don’t lose one to two months of early growing season as all sorghum species need warm soil with increasing soil temperatures. If you ignore this temperature requirement, the crop will not emerge, nor will it regrow.

In the North Country, by the Canadian border, farmers have had to delay planting until late June in some years and still got over 20 tons of silage an acre. Thus, we suggest double-cropping with an early oat.

We strongly suggest a one-cut system for sorghum-sudans and forage sorghum as it will produce at least double the total yield of a multicut while simultaneously maintaining forage quality and cutting harvest cost in half per ton.

7. Short-season corn. For most farms, an early planting of a slightly higher population of short-season corn will be the option with the least risk.

Corn can grow at a soil temperature of 55 degrees F. No-till would be even better because you don’t have to wait for the whole soil profile to dry, just the top 4 to 5 inches. We have no-tilled 82-day corn at the end of April in Albany and gotten mature corn silage — 18 tons per acre — by Aug. 1.

Using minimum tillage, we have come back in and established legume grass seedings for the next year harvest. Just remember that dry or cloudy weather can delay maturity of the early short-season corn, thus endangering the success of the following seeding if not planted on time.

An alternative with short-season corn is that instead of seeding after harvest, immediately follow it with incorporated manure and then plant 100 pounds of oats — grain type, not forage — and 80 pounds of triticale per acre. The oats will be harvested at boot stage at the end of September. If you mow it correctly — cutter bar height at 4 inches — the triticale will rapidly regrow and give you an additional harvest next spring. Mow shorter than that and you will have a bare field with no winter forage.

Thus, from the same acreage, you get a corn silage crop, an oat forage crop and a winter forage crop for the next spring.

If you don’t want the winter forage advantage, just plant the oats.

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

About the Author(s)

Tom Kilcer

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

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