For Terry Mergen, winter rye cuts wintertime soil erosion, makes more efficient use of his land and provides forage for his dairy herd when supplies are running low. And the high-quality, palatable silage also boosts milk production, says Mergen, a Bloomington, WI, dairy farmer.

"I feed my cows all summer on a crop I grow in fall and early spring," says Mergen, who makes rye silage in early to mid-May. "As soon as I start feeding the rye silage, milk production goes up 3-5 lbs/cow/day."

Rye silage is indeed high in quality, says Willie Foster, Mergen's neighbor and nutrition consultant. Mergen's 2000 crop tested 18% crude protein, 24 ADF and 45 NDF.

"Corn silage usually has an ADF of 24 and an NDF of around 44," says Foster. "So rye silage is typical of corn silage for fiber content, but it has twice as much protein. It's very palatable, too."

With just 300 acres at his disposal to feed a herd of 90 cows plus young stock, Mergen follows a strict crop rotation schedule to utilize each acre most efficiently. He seeds about 50 acres of rye each fall with seed he saved from the previous year.

After harvesting corn silage in early September, he applies large amounts of manure, then seeds 3 bu of rye per acre. The rye has time to become well-established before going dormant. It keeps the soil in place through the winter, says Mergen.

In spring, the rye starts growing early, often through the snow if the ground isn't frozen. When it's about 10" tall, Mergen applies urea to boost the crop's protein content.

Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist, favors rye as a cover crop, too, and commends Mergen's management of the crop.

"Rye grows under cooler temperatures than other small grains so it will grow later into the winter and start growing earlier in the spring," says Undersander. "It's also the most winterhardy of the small grains."

He says it should be seeded between Aug. 1 and mid-September in southern Wisconsin.

After Mergen's done planting corn, he and Foster harvest the rye. To optimize quality, they like to harvest it just prior to boot stage. It's windrowed and field dried for up to three days, then is chopped at about 65% moisture and put in an upright concrete silo.

This year, Mergen's yields topped 6 tons/acre and helped fill a near-empty silo.

Each cow is fed about 20 lbs/day of rye silage during summer, replacing over half of the haylage in Mergen's total mixed ration (TMR). Other TMR components include corn silage, high-moisture shelled corn, roasted soybeans and minerals.

After the rye was taken off last May, Mergen no-tilled Group III soybeans into that ground.

"Soybeans are a logical crop to follow rye because they put nitrogen back in the soil," says the dairyman.

Next spring, it'll be planted to silage corn and then rotated to alfalfa for three to five years.

Undersander says many growers are reluctant to seed rye because they mistakenly think it's too hard on soil.

"Rye does require proper fertilization, but so do all other crops with good yields," notes Undersander.

Because the crop removes nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and sulfur, Mergen soil tests religiously and fertilizes as needed to supplement the dairy manure.