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The whole story on winter triticale

Planted on time, winter triticale can provide benefits beyond just higher milk production.

Tom Kilcer

September 6, 2023

6 Min Read
A tractor plowing through forage
GREAT FORAGE: You can still get all the cover crop benefits from growing winter triticale, but it is also a premier forage for high-producing animals. Tom Kilcer

Over the past 25 years, we have worked on management steps for high-yielding triticale winter forage. These were summarized in a column I wrote in July.

But while focusing on the trees, we missed talking about the whole forest. So, why winter forage? Well, what initially started as a cover crop is now a premier forage for many dairy farms across the U.S. and Canada.

You still get all the cover crop benefits, but it is also a premier forage for high-producing animals. I’ve covered crude protein in other columns. Using sufficient spring nitrogen and sulfur, it is relatively easy to harvest 17% to 20% crude protein forage.

The neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFd) of winter forage when harvested at flag leaf has attracted attention. One study done by John Winchell of Alltech, in Pennsylvania, compared alfalfa to properly harvested winter forage. The alfalfa NDFd 30 was 46 while the winter forage NDFd was 65. This represents 9.5 pounds more milk from the same dry matter.

Many winter triticale forage samples come back much higher, at 70 NDFd in some cases. Where properly harvested winter forage really shines is during the heat of midsummer. Because of its high fiber digestibility, the dreaded “summer slump” disappears when highly digestible winter forage is added to the ration.

The benefit farmers have discovered when growing winter forage triticale is the 25% to 35% increase in total yield from each acre covered.

To get the triticale in on time in northern regions, we grow a slightly shorter-season corn. Dropping from 105-day to 85-day corn will lose an average of 3 tons of corn silage per acre, or 1.05 tons of dry matter. That is replaced by getting the triticale planted on time, with 6 to 12 tons of silage yield — 2 to 4.2 tons of dry matter of winter forage, and more than 5 tons of dry matter in areas depending on higher management used and climatic zone.

The bonus is that winter forage at flag leaf has more milk per ton than the corn silage you gave up. A second bonus is that we have growing evidence that planting no-till corn into triticale stubble yields higher than conventionally tilled and planted corn.

It keeps soil covered

Research has found that bare soil over winter suffers a tremendous decrease in soil health and structure. Both are improved under winter forage.

Instead of going backward over winter, the soil improves as if sod was growing there. Thus, the 3 tons of corn silage loss from shorter-season corn may not even occur as the corn responds to growing in agronomically superior soil structure, porosity and moisture management that winter forage generates.

Winter triticale is the earliest mechanically harvested forage you can produce. Farms with a tight or short supply of haylage can harvest early varieties of triticale at the flag leaf stage and get it into the ration weeks before first cutting was ready and fermented.

Ironically, some farms have dropped alfalfa completely and now grow a winter triticale forage and a summer forage for their year-round cropping. They get higher yields of high-quality forage at less cost.

One of the key benefits of winter forage is that the soil is protected from washing away. Winter thaws, where the top of the soil liquefies over frozen ground and then gets rained on, can remove an incredible amount of the best part of your soil structure. Tillage hides much of this erosion, but the yield loss over time does not.

For fields with repeated topdressed manure, the very high fertility of the surface is washed away, which loses money. On-time winter forage is superior at protecting the soil all winter.

After corn silage is harvested in September, on a heavily manured field, the manure continues to release nitrogen and convert it to nitrate until the ground temperature drops below 50 degrees F. This is often two or more months after harvest. With no roots to absorb it other than winter annual weeds, the nitrogen is denitrified in wet conditions or leached out of the soil.

My research as well as that of Quirine Ketterings of Cornell University has found that for every pound of dry matter growing on the soil as winter forage, it is 22% crude protein. That ton of winter forage dry matter holds more than 70 pounds of nitrogen safely until it is used the following spring.

For on-time or early planted triticale, we have measured over 1.5 tons of dry matter, and 120-150 pounds of nitrogen held in living tissue until next spring. That nitrogen savings alone would more than pay for the cost of the winter triticale seed.

Get it planted on time

You will not get these nitrogen storage benefits unless you plant the crop on time to maximize the dry matter produced before winter shuts things down.

In our research, late-planted winter forage going into the winter at 3 to 5 inches tall saved only 4 pounds of nitrogen. The much taller, on-time planting right next to it contained 123 pounds of nitrogen per acre. And it will not winterkill from the high nitrogen or lush growth.

Winter annuals and perennials such as quackgrass will get a running start when corn is bare from harvest and until the corn is planted the next spring. This builds a weed reservoir and eventually weed resistance, resulting in crop loss or an expensive increase in herbicide cost.

Under a properly planted and fertilized winter triticale, there is little or no chance for any weeds to get established. I once tried winter forage with shade-tolerant red clover seeded at the same time. The only place the red clover survived was where there was no triticale.

Winter triticale forage smothers weeds, and it also helps in the spring as there is 60% less soil moisture because the growing forage consumes it. This allows the soil to warm sooner and the crop to be ready earlier.

I remember one wet spring when a farmer I worked with found that he could safely harvest all his triticale, spread manure and plant corn without damaging the drier soil structure. He then waited until the rest of the corn ground, without winter forage, dried out before he could begin cropping them.

Yes, in a spring drought this would not help, but another farm I worked with found that corn planted on winter forage ground in drought did as well as corn planted on ground that was not winter forage because of the vastly improved soil structure from the forage. He had the benefit of harvesting 10-12 tons of silage before planting the corn, so he was ahead of his neighbors, who did not grow winter forage.

One final point: Winter forage stubble is the perfect surface to no-till corn, soybeans or legumes. Infrared from the sun will penetrate growing winter forage and warm the ground. After harvest there is only stubble left, and the ground continues to warm. More importantly, there is little or no residue to interfere with planting, or a place for slugs to hide and then eat your crop.

The stubble keeps the drying wind off the soil surface so what you plant next has maximum moisture. The stubble and massive decaying root system protects the soil from erosion.

On one farm I worked with, the farmer planted no-till alfalfa into winter triticale stubble. Three weeks later, the farm got 4 inches of rain in 20 minutes. The new crop was protected from erosion. The conventionally tilled field across the road was a complete wipeout.

Kilcer is a certified crop adviser in Rutledge, Tenn., formerly of Kinderhook, N.Y.

About the Author(s)

Tom Kilcer

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

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