Winter triticale looks as promising as winter rye as a precut straw crop — harvested before grain fill, recent Cornell University field trials show.

“In 2008 we got incredible yields from the triticale, with some topping 5 tons per acre of straw,” says Mike Davis, manager of Cornell's Baker Agricultural Research Farm in Willsboro, NY.

“While we can't expect that every year, it is definitely encouraging. I think both of these small grains fit a niche, especially since the market for good-quality straw is always fairly strong here in the Northeast.”

The horse market has proved a lucrative one for precut straw, paying premiums of $30-50/ton over traditional straw baled after grain harvest.

But vegetable growers use it as mulch around strawberries and other high-value crops because it is seed-free. “It makes a great mulch that's clean and lasts the growing season,” Davis says.

For the same reasons, it has also become popular with county and state highway crews who use it to mulch along newly seeded ditches and roadsides, adds Cornell Extension agronomist Mike Hunter, who worked with Davis on the trials.

When properly harvested, precut straw is usually longer, brighter and cleaner than wheat straw baled after combining. Which of the fall-seeded small grains you may choose depends on timing and growing conditions, says Hunter, and either can fit nicely into a forage crop rotation, too.

“For growers in the last year of a corn rotation, the crop can be seeded after corn is chopped for silage, in September or October, and harvested the following June. That allows the field to be fallow for five to six weeks before disking and seeding it to alfalfa, red clover or perennial grasses in August,” Hunter says.

Based on four years of trials in Jefferson County in northern New York, triticale produced about 20% more straw than rye on average. “With the three varieties of triticale we planted, straw yields averaged 2½-3 tons on a dry-matter basis,” he says. “With triticale, you also have a bigger selection of varieties to choose from. The key is to choose one that has proved to do well in your area.”

While there are fewer varieties of winter rye available, that crop definitely has its strengths, he notes. “It tends to be hardier and less susceptible to winterkill than triticale, it can be planted later in the fall and is more tolerant of wet soils.”

Both crops require no herbicide, since their early and rapid spring growth tends to smother weeds. “You're usually left with a fairly clean field after harvesting the straw, as well,” he says.

Hunter also conducted a fertility trial and found the optimum nitrogen rate for triticale was 100 lbs/acre, while the optimum N rate for the rye was 50 lbs/acre. “Early spring is the best time to apply the nitrogen, just after the crop begins to green up. That's when the crop can make the best use of it, since it's growing vigorously at that point.”

Harvest should take place anywhere between flowering and pollination. “By that time the plant has reached maximum stem growth,” he notes.

In order for straw to get the desirable bleached yellow to off-white color, it needs a light rain after cutting, says Hunter. “If that's not possible, straw tends to retain more of a green color, which may not fetch as high a price, especially from horse owners.”

For more information, see a related story on precut rye, called "Nothing But the Best."