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Research plot of winter triticale, winter hybrid rye and winter barley as forage crops Tom Kilcer
FORAGE FOCUS: Researchers have zeroed in on what works and doesn’t work when it comes to growing winter forage in New York state and other areas of the Northeast.

Now is the time to plant winter forage

Guest Column: Plant early, use a drill in wet soils and apply seed treatment for optimum production.

The heat of summer has been a real crop saver in the Northeast. Many days were 80 to 85 degrees F, which helped late-planted corn grow quickly.

Unfortunately, some of the hardest hit areas from this year’s late growing season will never see mature corn for grain or silage.

Whether you’re short on quality forage, want to optimize production from every acre, or just want to save nutrients and productive soil, growing winter forage can help.

Many farms across the northern U.S. and southern Canada have added winter forage to their rotations. Unfortunately, increased demand and bad seed yield are putting a squeeze on seed supply this year.

The options

We have been researching, with the help of Mark Sorrells of Cornell University, winter triticale, winter hybrid rye and winter barley as forage crops.

Winter barley, if planted early enough, gave us nice yields for a very northern site near the Canadian border. The disadvantage we see is that it matures several weeks after both winter rye and winter triticale.

The hybrid rye and winter triticale were planted a little late at this new site and both were stressed by last year’s hard winter. The rye matured 10 days earlier than the later triticale varieties, but early triticale matured at the same time as hybrid rye. These early varieties were equal or higher yielding than the common and hybrid rye.

Common rye is discouraged from being used as its poor standability does not allow for the higher nitrogen rates necessary for both top yield and to support crude protein of 20%. Unfortunately, in this trial, the hybrid rye did not have a yield advantage over the common Wheeler rye, but it appeared to have better standability.

Triticale is known for its standability under high nitrogen fertilization. Regardless of species chosen, to get high yield takes several steps that we have learned are critical for optimum success.

Plant early. Our research suggests that planting 10 days to two weeks before the grain planting date for your area is best. By planting winter forage earlier, the plant has more time to generate tillers. The more tillers, the more forage yield (if you are growing for grain, you want to limit the number of tillers).

In a replicated trial, plantings around Sept. 10 yielded 30% higher dry matter than Oct. 5 plantings, when a lot of corn silage may still be in the field. Planting at this later date will still give a good crop but it is not as high yielding. This is something we have repeatedly seen in our trials.

Planting earlier gives more top and root growth. The root growth reduces winter heaving injury. The top growth protects the crown from cold desiccation and gets more of the leaves above spring melt-water, which causes snow mold injury.

Another advantage of early planting is that the crop gets growing so fast that it out-competes the weeds and no herbicide is needed. This is especially true for crops planted with a modern drill that places the seed exactly where it needs to go and firms the soil around the seed for rapid germination. Finally, earlier planting results in earlier harvest the next spring. Triticale planted Sept. 10 was ready to harvest a week earlier than triticale planted Oct. 5.

The corn will be coming off late for many farmers. In late-planted fields, the earlier winter forage planting window is probably a fantasy.

But should we skip winter forage? The answer, based on my multiple years of research, is no, go ahead and plant. You will still protect the soil against long-term soil erosion. You will also improve the soil health and soil structure by having living roots growing in winter.

I have planted as late as mid-October near Albany, N.Y., and had economical yields of high-quality forage.

Helping late plantings survive. There are several steps you can take to improve yield and survival of late-planted winter forage.

Don’t fall for the old story that if you plant late you can make up for it by putting down more seed. Technically, if you want to plant 450 pounds of seed per acre instead of the standard 100 pounds per acre it might help. Early planted will have nine to 11 tillers per seed while late-planted will have two to five tillers per seed. Thus, you need three to five times more seed to get the same number of stems per acre.

In trials I’ve done, I have not seen any advantage to planting more than 100 pounds of winter triticale seed per acre. There was no yield gain up through 200 pounds of seed per acre, even in the late planting date.

Winter rye, especially the hybrid, is planted at lower rates as it has more seeds per pound.

Treat the seeds. If you are forced this year to plant later than the optimum two weeks before wheat grain planting, don’t spend money on extra seed. Instead, spend it on having a three-way fungicide seed treatment applied to the seed.

In replicated trials at 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 control of untreated seed.

The late planting (Oct. 5) with seed treatment still gave us 2.8 tons of dry matter yield, which is a very profitable crop.

Drill late plantings. As your planting date moves later it becomes critical that the crop be drilled a minimum of 1.25 inches deep. Late-planted winter forage has little time to put on a weather-buffering blanket of heavy vegetation. Many plantings don’t even cover the soil between the rows.

Because of heaving the following spring, seed depth is critical in more northern areas, where we plant later, and in wetter soils. The plants will heave one-quarter to a half-inch out of the soil. This is enough for the air to dry and collapse the roots.

The deeper planting allows the roots to resist early spring heaving. 

Triticale is winter hardy if planted correctly. Remember, you are not planting a cover crop, you are planting a high-yielding crop that, with proper management, can produce high-quality forage that you can grow and feed.

Apply manure. Finally, our trials have found that a shot of nitrogen in the fall can help stimulate tillering without affecting winter hardiness. Applying and incorporating 4,000 gallons an acre of manure had a beneficial effect on yield the next spring. Unfortunately, few farmers can do this as the labor is tied up in chopping and hauling corn.

It is more important to get the winter forage in the ground early than it is to add nitrogen. Top-dressing manure after planting is a waste as nearly all the readily available nitrogen is lost in volatilization. Spreading urea with an anti-volatilization compound can push the fall tillering.

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