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Alternative forages are taking hold

Greg Roth Published on 14 August 2013

The last several years have posed many challenges for dairy producers: droughts, high feed costs, high input costs and escalating land rents.

These have forced many to seek creative alternatives to corn and traditional forage crops, increasing on-farm feed production and often significantly improving cash flow.

These alternative winter and summer annual crops have had other benefits as well: reducing the potential for erosion and runoff, improving nutrient management and reducing the potential risk from weather.

Alternative small-grain crops such as fall-planted spring oats, winter rye, triticale and barley are not new but have been a relatively small part of the dairy feed landscape in the mid-Atlantic region.

With the increase in feed costs, the rapid adoption of no-till, the upgrading of crop equipment and the recent variable weather, producers are now more motivated and equipped to take advantage of these crops.

During this period, the seed industry has responded with numerous new varieties and mixes to accelerate this adoption.

The use of summer annuals has been increasing recently with the development of new BMR sorghum-sudans and forage sorghums. These have a fit on soils that are not well adapted to corn production, ones that are droughty and those soils that are often too wet for early corn planting. They are also well adapted to double-cropping following small-grain silages.

Both the small-grain and summer annual crops are relatively inexpensive to establish, and that often leads to a misconception that management is not as critical as some traditional forages. In reality, management is critical to produce high yields of dairy-quality feed. Many producers have adopted some management tactics to maximize the potential of these forages in this mini-revolution.

For the fall-planted oats, it is critical to seed early, in late August or early September to maximize yields in the Pennsylvania region. Some producers are using shorter corn hybrid maturities to facilitate this earlier planting. Good fertility, often from a timely manure application, is also critical to help meet N needs and maintain soil K levels.

As a result, on many farms, corn chopping, manure spreading and no-till fall oats planting need to happen in a relatively short window and this requires some effective planning and often dependable custom operators.

Planting immediately following corn harvest helps to avoid the hard soil conditions that can develop when the soils dry out in warm late-summer weather. Fall oats can be harvested in late October or November and can add 1.5 to 2.5 tons of dry matter per acre to the feed inventory.

Since they mature slowly, the harvest window is relatively wide, which helps with matching harvest to conditions that will help with drydown of the swathed crop, which sometimes can be a problem.

One issue with oats is the lack of residue in the spring, which is helpful to prevent erosion or runoff. Producers have increasingly been adding other species to fall oats to provide a cover crop or also a forage crop. Adding other species will reduce fall yields a bit but can increase seasonal yields if a spring harvest or two is taken.

Wheat is often used as an inexpensive option for a cover crop since it matures more slowly than rye and has less tendency to interfere with corn planting.

For forages, triticale is a popular addition to oats because of its good yield potential, later maturity and wider harvest window than rye. Another twist is to add annual ryegrass to oats in the fall. These can produce two good cuttings of high-quality forage in the spring and still allow for a mid-May planting of corn for silage.

Winter grains have been a staple of alternative forages, with rye harvested at the boot stage as the most popular. Rye yields respond also to early fall planting and adequate N fertilization from manure or fertilizer.

Often producers supplement a fall manure application with a spring top-dress of 30 to 50 pounds of N at green-up. One change with rye management in our region has been a focus on earlier harvesting at flag leaf emergence rather than boot stage.

This helps avoid maturity-induced quality losses and helps facilitate earlier corn planting. Triticale is increasing rapidly as an alternative to rye.

Challenges with both rye and triticale include the need to harvest on a timely basis, which includes mowing, raking and chopping in sometimes cool, wet conditions in the spring. Also, delays in corn planting can reduce yields, which might offset some of the advantages.

Sometimes, though, fields often get planted late anyway, and taking a small-grain silage harvest can offset the effects of the late planting. Another challenge is that the mowing, chopping and manure spreading operations can cause soil compaction before corn planting, so taking steps to avoid this is critical.

Another alternative to both rye and triticale has been the use of winter barley chopped at the soft-dough stage. Harvest needs to be timely, but it is often direct cut, avoiding the mowing and raking operations with the other crops.

With choppers adapted for direct harvesting of small grains, harvest can be rapid. Harvest is also two to three weeks later than rye, with typically drier conditions and less opportunity for soil compaction.

Yields can be up to 4 to 5 tons of dry matter per acre and provide a timely supplement to short summer corn silage inventories. Many producers opt for taller, non-bearded barley lines and then manage N conservatively to avoid lodging. Following harvest in late May, corn or sorghum can be double-cropped for silage.

On some soils, corn yields can be disappointing with a midsummer drought and with high input costs. This can result in expensive feed. On these operations where planting is delayed following a small-grain crop into early June, forage sorghums or sorghum-sudans are gaining popularity.

Sorghum-sudans can even be planted into mid-July with good success, so they can be double-cropped following a wheat grain harvest. Some dairy producers are now renting wheat stubble fields for sorghum-sudan double-cropping opportunities.

Both of these crops require good management for top yields. Selection of the BMR genetics is a key to maximize fiber digestibility. For sorghum, the new brachytic dwarf trait reduces concern about lodging potential of the taller forage sorghums.

Both crops offer the opportunity for high-quality forage, harvested in mid-summer for the sorghum-sudans or mid-fall for the forage sorghums. For the sorghum-sudans, timely harvest and N applications are critical. For forage sorghums, timely planting in late May or early June is critical to ensure maturity and good starch levels in the fall.

All of these alternative crops are especially well adapted to dairies that have high stocking rates and less-than-ideal corn soils. These farms often have plenty of manure nutrients to meet the demands of multiple crops.

Coordinating multiple activities that need to occur in a narrow time frame can be challenging, but more operations are figuring out how to do this effectively. The result is less need for off-farm forages and often lower corn and soybean meal purchases.

It’s been interesting to see these alternative crops blossom to complement corn silage as a mainstay of dairy forage. There is still more potential to develop the management and genetics of these crops, but for now, it has really contributed to a great opportunity for many farms.  FG



Greg W. Roth
Professor of Agronomy
Penn State Extension Department of Plant Science