Triticale, a winter small grain traditionally used in the Northeast as a plow-down cover crop, has recently gained ground there as a winter forage.

Triticale-seeded acreage, the past five years in New York alone, has increased from 2,000-3,000 acres to nearly 30,000 acres planted for 2014, says Bill Verbeten, Cornell University Extension agronomist.

Weather events that reduced forage inventories, as well as record commodity crop prices and recent research on triticale, contributed to its quick adoption, says John Uveges, northern division manager for Seedway.

“We’ve been selling triticale seed here for 30 years,” he says. “It’s just taken off in the last four or five. Producers were looking for alternatives because they needed forage. The more tons you can get off every acre, the better.”

Triticale seed sales have jumped about 50% per year, estimate Uveges and Tim Fritz, president of King’s AgriSeeds.

“The reason is yield. Triticale has higher yields than other winter forages,” Fritz adds.

Research by Verbeten and Tom Kilcer, an agronomist and former Cornell Extension agent, has shown triticale yields ranging from 4 tons/acre dry matter down to 1.5 tons.

“It’s being fed to heifers as a more high-fiber feed with high fiber digestibility that they tend not to get as fat on as they would from high-quality alfalfa haylage or corn silage. The other place where it’s being incorporated quite well is in high-milking rations as another digestible fiber source,” Verbeten says.

Harvested at the right stage, triticale can produce “a phenomenal feed with very high (70-80%) fiber digestibilities and middle-of-the-road (12-18%) crude protein levels. It feeds very nicely.”

A cross between wheat and rye, the small grain should be planted during recommended winter barley planting dates or a week earlier than winter wheat. In Verbeten’s New York area, that’s early September. It should be harvested at flag-leaf stage the next May to become dairy-quality silage.

The crop, delayed a week and harvested at boot stage, offers more tonnage and a slightly lower forage quality, to be fed to heifers, dry cows or beef cattle.

It can be followed by short-season silage corn, a forage sorghum or, recommended in East Coast states like New York, alfalfa (see story on page 8).

“Over this way, we like to mix it with annual ryegrass,” says Fritz, who is based in Pennsylvania. “It can turn into two aggressive spring cuts by harvesting before flag leaf for first cut, leaving 4” stubble and applying 50-75 units of nitrogen (N) for the next cutting, which will be more ryegrass than triticale.”

Triticale’s yield is tied to the amount of N applied and planting date, Verbeten says.

Fall-applied manure, legume credits and higher soil organic matter levels provide some N, but most yield gains come from a 30- to 60-lb/acre shot given in early spring, his research shows. For Fritz’s area, he recommends a 75- to 100-lb/acre rate. Both recommend adding 15-25 lbs/acre of sulfur.

“As soon as you can get in the field, you want to get nitrogen on these small grains, because the soil is not warm enough to get it from the organic matter or manure.” Up to 75-100 lbs/acre may be needed on fields with no history of manure, he says. Fritz would put that recommendation higher, to 100-150 lbs/acre.

“Kilcer has pretty good data in eastern New York showing higher triticale silage yields with earlier fall planting dates and high nitrogen rates. Our experience in western New York is confirming this trend,” Verbeten says.

Yield potential this year may be down, the agronomist predicts, because the wet fall delayed plantings and the long, harsh winter could shorten the coming growing season. Farms that broadcasted triticale seed experienced heaving over winter. “The folks who have drilled their triticale in are generally a lot better off,” he says, because the seed was farther under the soil.

Harvesting the wet forage properly involves a learning curve, Verbeten says.

“There are a lot of things about triticale silage that we’re doing differently. You’re dealing with twice the amount of material as first-cut haylage, looking at somewhere between – in a high-yield situation – 8 and 12 tons/acre of wet feed.

“You’re trying to cut that material, spread it wide and thin, hit it with a tedder two hours later, merge it, then come back and chop it as soon as you can. And this is when you’re starting to plant corn and right before the first haylage harvest. So there’s a labor crunch.”

The workforce situation is part of what has kept triticale acreage from expanding further. Many smaller dairies put up 150-200 acres each while larger operations can handle 500-700 acres.

After the crop is cut in wide swaths as close to 100% of cutterbar width as possible, it should be tedded slowly to prevent wear on tedders and clumping of material that won’t dry. The end goal is to chop the triticale the same day at greater than 30% dry matter. For the most part, triticale is harvested wetter than that.

Verbeten and Kilcer advocate chopping wet forage at a longer length of cut – 1-1.5” – as compared to the ¾” length that haylage is traditionally chopped.

“If you’re basically doubling the length of cut, you’re going to be greatly reducing the leachate. With haylage, we’re drying it in the field long enough so that we don’t have storage issues.” But small grains are typically harvested “when drying conditions stink,” Verbeten says.

The higher-moisture silage also needs a homolactic bacterial inoculant applied to produce lactic acid.

“We’re considering looking at other things,” he adds, mentioning recent work by Limin Kung, University of Delaware animal scientist. “He has found, working with rye silage, that you can actually have proper ensiling really quickly, even with these wetter silages.”

Storage and feedout management also need to be adjusted. “You want to feed these wet silages out quickly to try to reduce spoilage,” because up to 30% of the higher-moisture silage can be lost in storage, he says. Most is fed by the time the growing season is finished.

Verbeten and Kilcer are considering testing applications of propionic acid either at chopping or at feedout between facings to keep losses down.

The long-term implications of moving toward triticale silage? Fewer acres planted to alfalfa, he predicts. “If you’re in a double-crop system of corn silage and triticale, that’s yielding at least double what a haylage system would yield in only two cuts vs. four or five.”