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Winter forages: What are my options?

David Hunsberger for Progressive Forage Published on 31 August 2020
Winter forages

Growing winter forages, a great way to increase available inventory, maximizes the productivity of your land base. Fully one-third of sunlight received in temperate zones comes during the winter season.

If we grow only a cash crop and allow cropland to lie open, we miss availing ourselves of 33% of carbon-building potential and the resiliency the soil achieves as it gains in organic matter.

All species need to have 4 to 6 inches minimum of fall growth to survive the winter dormancy period, except for cereal rye. Rye is the most commonly used cover crop/winter forage, and it’s the easiest to establish; it can even be dormant seeded. This is the species to sow after a corn grain harvest if you get into a November harvest. Dormant seedings will produce a little less forage, as they were not able to set extra tillers (stems) per each seed in the autumn growth period. Timely planting of cereal rye in the fall allows it to be the earliest to harvest in the spring. For all the grasses and cereals, we need to harvest prior to boot stage, flag leaf or before the seedhead emerges. There is a Feekes scale that shows growth stages; flag leaf is Feekes scale 9.

Cereal rye

Cereal rye is a great segue to winter forages; if you have adverse conditions at flag leaf, you can still get a return on rye, allow it to go to full head and, just as it begins to have anthers (pollen), swathe it down and let the sun and rain bleach it out. Then you can bale up almost white straw for bedding or market to landscape or equine facilities – no dust, no grain or mice issues.

Winter barley

Winter barley varieties are the next species to head out in the spring and need to be seeded the earliest of the winter grains. Generally, this is the best winter forage for neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFd). Feekes 9 is the goal for best crude protein and digestible fiber. If a weather event prevents us from harvesting at flag leaf, we allow barley to head out and chop it with a direct cut head.

Since barley is a shorter-stature plant, the stem-to-starch ratio is the smallest; soft dough stage grain barley silage can be an effective substitute for corn silage or can stretch out the corn silage inventory feedout. Plant it 1 to 1.5 inches deep at 3 bushels (150 pounds approximately) rate per acre. Dates are early; it’s best to confer with extension staff or land-grant experiment stations in your area. In central Pennsylvania, we sow it the middle of September, but do not delay because of low soil moisture – plant the seeds.

Triticale

Triticale is next on the spring harvest schedule. Triticale is a cross between winter wheat and cereal rye. We want to plant triticale two weeks before the optimum wheat dates for your locale. Triticale will tiller very aggressively, so seed 125 to 150 pounds per acre at 1.5 inches deep to mitigate frost heaving damage.

Triticale is not as tall as rye but is much denser. It is difficult to see the soil surface from a 90-degree vertical view, as it is so dense. Some studies have shown 20% to 30% more dry matter (DM) produced than cereal rye. We must keep that in mind when planning our fertility passes.

Wheat

Wheat – many varieties are available. We want to pick some dual-purpose or forage-bred varieties. Many land-grant universities have great cultivar testing programs. Penn State University has a short-lived trial that looks at annual ryegrass, mixes, cereals and timothy, and has harvest dates by variety and forage quality info on each entry. Hessian fly is an insect that has a huge economic impact on wheat, and each county should have a Hessian fly-free date; our county is Oct. 1, with a recommended rate of 3 to 4 bushels per acre and 1 to 1.5 inches seed depth.

Timothy

Timothy rounds out our pantheon of winter forages. It can serve well as an annual only. Choose a leafy, early maturing variety. This gives us two to four weeks between the optimum harvest dates from rye to timothy, yields being equivalent.

Timing

The risk management strategy is size-neutral from horse-drawn to tractors with mounted triple mowers; only so much can be cut and chopped in a timely fashion. The window of opportunity for rain-free, sunny days in the spring are narrow, sometimes only two days back-to-back. With non-conditioning wide swath and optimal tedding, we can get forages below 70% moisture in one day.

Potentially, we can look to storage structures or pile locations to inform us as to how many acres we may want to plant of each species. We can fill one or two structures with high-quality feed and reduce the effect of rain events on our forage quality. The probability of a disaster of rain-soaked forages or missed ideal maturity is greatly diminished. Manure is more likely to be hauled out onto proper soil moisture conditions, with less compaction and more resilience for drought and runoff as we preserve soil pore space.

Fertility

Regardless of species, we will need a good fertility program. If we have slurry available in fall, apply under manure management guidelines; if not, a minimum of 30 to 60 units of nitrogen in the fall will promote tillering. Remember, cold soils in spring will have limited microbial action, and we cannot rely on mineralization to provide spring nitrogen needs until our soils are above 50ºF. In the Northeast, we are ready to harvest about then.

We need 100 to 150 units of nitrogen with a 10-to-1 ratio of sulfur to promote amino acid building in the plants. Our target is high teens to low 20s for crude protein (CP) values. If you are split applying N, make sure the forecast is for warm sunny days and you have at least 14 days until harvest; this allows the plant time to convert non-protein nitrogen into true proteins.

Summary

  1. One-third of the annual sunlight falls outside of cash crop season.

  2. Feeding cattle with forages produced over winter can build forage inventory.

  3. Winter forages can improve soil health and increase resiliency.

  4. Choosing different species can mitigate weather risk at harvest.

  5. Optimum feed values are achieved with accurate applications of fertility. 

If you want to make the most of your land, take a look at winter forages. end mark

PHOTO: Winter forages. Staff photos.

David Hunsberger is with King’s AgriSeeds Inc. Email David Hansberger.

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