By the time David Jones plants corn this year, he'll already have a significant amount of high-quality silage in his bunker.
Last fall, this Aroda, VA, dairyman broadcast 3 bu/acre of winter wheat after chopping silage corn. The fields were dry, so Jones disked lightly to incorporate the seed, then applied a heavy coat of liquid dairy manure. Most years, the disking isn't needed, he says.
This spring, he'll chop the wheat at boot stage, then plant silage corn again. He says doublecropping corn and wheat takes advantage of early season moisture, ensuring a good forage supply, even in dry years. It also lets him apply more manure without losing nutrients to leaching and runoff.
Jones tried rye and barley before settling on wheat as his swing-shift crop. He says wheat can take more fertility without lodging, and it matures a few days later, when warmer weather speeds wilting.
Doublecropping silage corn and a small grain is “a good system,” points out Les Vough, University of Maryland extension agronomist. In research, he's harvested up to 4 tons/acre of silage dry matter from the grain crop.
“We see it being used primarily in years when we have a drought and we're short on corn and hay,” says Vough. “With our rolling land, it gives you a winter cover for soil erosion control. In addition, you're picking up a crop when the land would otherwise be idle, and it lets you apply more manure. Especially for our larger dairy operations, that's a real need.”
He prefers triticale over other fall-seeded small grains. In central Maryland where Vough is located, silage corn should be planted by mid-May. Wheat and barley reach boot stage a little too late for timely corn planting, and rye matures too early.
“Triticale fits the window better,” says Vough.
Although broadcasting the small grain seed can work, most growers use no-till planting equipment.
“We go in with a no-till drill — that's safer,” says Vough.
Virginia dairyman David Jones also uses winter wheat to bump up his first-cutting alfalfa yield. He no-tills wheat into the alfalfa field shortly after the final cutting, then applies enough dairy slurry to supply 70-80 lbs of nitrogen per acre.
That's a good practice, too, says Les Vough, University of Maryland extension agronomist. An overseeded small grain — he prefers triticale — can add up to a ton of silage dry matter to the first cutting without hurting the alfalfa, says Vough.
“We've been going back on the same plots four years now, and haven't seen a detrimental effect on the alfalfa,” he adds.
For best results, you'll need to add nitrogen, preferably at spring green-up. Vough is wrapping up research aimed at identifying the optimal small grain seeding and nitrogen fertilizer rates.
“If you have a good, strong alfalfa stand, 80 lbs of N and 50 lbs of triticale are probably sufficient,” says Vough. “As your stand begins to thin out, apply 80 lbs of seed and 100-120 lbs of N.”
In addition to adding yield, he says the small grain holds up the alfalfa, permitting cleaner, faster cutting.
“Don't expect to cure the mixture for hay,” Vough adds. “There'll be too much of it: Rain-free periods are seldom long enough in early May to get the mass of forage dry for hay.”
He says triticale-alfalfa silage is good feed for lactating dairy cows. “Our herdsman is very happy with that mixture,” says Vough.
— Neil Tietz