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Forage mixes a win-win for some growers

Chris Torres Daniel Fisher,  Dave McLaughlin and Eric Risser talk about their experiences planting cover crop mixes for winter cover and spring forage
DAIRY PANEL: Daniel Fisher (left), Dave McLaughlin (center) and Eric Risser talk about their experiences planting cover crop mixes for winter cover and spring forage.
Three dairy farmers talk about their experiences implementing a continuous double-crop system.

With already limited acres, not to mention environmental pressures, some dairy producers are finding that double-cropping forages — even mixing them — has become the answer to getting more feed and keeping the ground covered.

Dave McLaughlin, who farms with his son in Elliotsburg, Pa. — his son runs the dairy portion of the operation with 120 cows — has seen success sowing a triticale-ryegrass mix in fall right after corn silage is harvested.

Depending on weather and how quickly the covers establish, he’s seen years where his son has gotten two cuttings of forage before planting corn silage the following spring.

“The spring forage is very digestible, high quality. It’s really good forage all around,” McLaughlin told a group of no-till farmers gathered for a recent field day in Strasburg, Pa. He participated in a panel with Bainbridge farmer Eric Risser and Strasburg farmer Daniel Fisher.

Risser, who raises 850 cows and grows 675 acres with his dad, uncle and cousin, says he plants several mixes of rye and triticale in fall for spring forage.

"We're trying to maximize forage production on our ground," he says.

Risser’s father started planting rye and corn silage in rotation 40 years ago, but he transitioned the farm to no-till in 2007. Since then, he’s noticed a big decrease in yield variability, but he’s also noticed that his fields are much better at retaining water, especially in dry periods.

For these reasons, among others, forage mixes in the rotation have fit well.

“We try to spread out our time and our windows and our risk there with the different varieties," Risser says, adding that he tries to plant five to six different varieties each year.

Fisher, a dairy farmer and owner of Bottom Line Ag Supply LLC, says many of his 500-plus clients — 95% of which are dairy farmers — are intrigued by the idea of cover crop forage mixes, but some are concerned about the effects of intense forage production on soil structure.

“You’re sometimes harvesting 40 tons of forage per acre per year. The other question is, how will the dairy perform without alfalfa?” Fisher says.

Fisher, who milks 60 cows on 32 acres, says it’s all about trying to do more with less.

On his brother’s farm, which is his family’s old home farm, he explains that a field once farmed by his grandfather was double-cropped for many years with cereal rye. Last year, it was planted in triticale and wheat.

To answer some of his clients’ concerns about the effects on soil quality, Fisher went back and looked at 25 years’ worth of records from his family farm. He compared the records from double-cropped fields to fields that just had a simple alfalfa rotation.

In the fields with double cropping, “We found higher organic matter, more favorable K levels and easier-to-manage phosphorus,” he says. There was also less use of insecticides and herbicides, and it produced a more consistent forage quality for the cows.

But growers need to do their homework before diving in, Fisher says. “Know your varieties and maturities. We now have ryes, triticale and wheat that can mature the same week. There’s been a lot of work on early-maturing triticales, early-maturing wheats. We now have triticales, wheats and rye that you can all harvest in one week,” he says.

Ensuring good growth

Fisher’s fertilizer program is based on seeding date. On later-seeded small grains, a nitrogen application in fall has helped increase tillering. Proper drilling depth of the cover crop is also crucial, he says.

A few years ago, he transitioned away from growing rye to growing more triticale and wheat. As a result, he’s started mixing those with ryegrass.

Fisher uses a dragline to apply manure, and one of the biggest things he’s seen is much faster regrowth of the ryegrass. Some years, he’s gotten up to 10 inches of ryegrass regrowth before planting corn silage. The fast regrowth allows the grass to capture more manure and sequester carbon. It also dries faster, he says, and produces a higher-energy forage.

McLaughlin applies manure after corn silage, then plants his triticale-ryegrass mix. He comes back the following spring with a dose of synthetic nitrogen, and then some manure before planting his corn.

“The benefit is the multiple cuttings, and we’re still allowed to use two applications of manure,” he says.

In terms of seeding rates, McLaughlin says he averages about 100 pounds per acre — two-thirds triticale, the remaining third in ryegrass.

Fisher likes to go higher. In a test plot, he planted 240 pounds per acre in a 20-80 mix of ryegrass and triticale. It paid off, as he got 1 ton of additional yield and a forage that was more highly digestible, he says.

Getting official trial data on potential forage mixes can be difficult to find. Penn State’s annual grass and cover crop trial has tested only one variety of multispecies forages the past several years.

“We have not typically trialed multispecies forage crops. In the past several years, we have trialed an entry or two in this category in the fall, and I am currently looking at multispecies spring and summer annuals,” says Tyler Rice, Extension research associate. “I believe that this is an area that could grow quite a bit with farmer interest gaining momentum.”

Risser says that soil compaction, especially after converting to no-till, was an issue the first couple of years, but that issue has largely gone away. Three years ago, there was a rainy summer in the mid-Atlantic. All his fields were wet, and the manure pit quickly filled up. When he went out and chopped silage that summer, the machine didn’t even make a rut in the fields.

The combination of cover crops and no-till, Risser says, improved his soil quality.

“It was amazing the structure in the soil with the no-till and then the root mass from the continuous double cropping,” he says.

For McLaughlin, the incentive to planting multiple forage covers is seeing the results.

"I think at least of the three of us that are right here on this panel, the incentive is it's an overall positive for our operations,” he says. “Feed for our cattle, quality feed for our cattle, and maximizes production because in all of our cases, we have a finite number of acres to produce forage. So it's a win-win for us.”

The 2021 Penn State grass and cover crops trial will be released soon. In the meantime, you can access past years’ trial data at extension.psu.edu.

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