In the Midwest, planting winter-hardy cereal grasses such as winter rye or triticale after fall-harvested corn or soybeans can provide both soil benefits and a grazing resource in the spring. Adding cereal rye or triticale into your system can fill the early-spring forage void with high-quality forage and do so by using fields that would otherwise be dormant.

Despite the harvest dates of corn and soybeans, cereal rye and winter triticale can be successfully established in late October. Although forage yields in the spring would be greater if planted earlier, the amount of forage is still sufficient to be economically viable.

The window for spring grazing in corn and soybean systems is relatively short but also comes at a time when few other options are available.

In the spring, there is a potential for yield drag on the subsequent corn crop if the small grain cereal grasses are not terminated early, allowing seven or more days between termination of the spring crop and the planting of the corn. Thus, with traditional planting dates, a 30- to 45-day grazing period in April and early May is achievable.

Soybeans are more forgiving; small grain cereal grasses can be terminated at or even after planting if low soil moisture is not a concern. When coupling the later planting date of soybeans with the possible delayed termination date of the cover crop, the window for spring grazing can approach 45 to 60 days prior to a late-May soybean planting.

Rye or triticale?

Both cereal rye and triticale have advantages and disadvantages. Rye, especially Southern varieties such as Elbon, tends to break out of dormancy earlier and is ready to graze about seven to 10 days earlier in the spring than triticale. On the other hand, triticale matures later than rye and has a delayed grazing window, being a little more forgiving in terms of low stocking rates. Producers may consider having fields of both, using rye before corn to maximize early grazing and triticale before soybeans to ensure forage quality can be maintained during the later grazing window.

In the early spring, these forages grow fast, and having enough animals out grazing is important to ensure that the forage does not get too mature. Generally, the first time producers try to graze these forages, they do not get cattle out early enough and do not stock heavily enough. Start grazing when the forage is 4 to 6 inches tall. Being able to have high stocking densities and rotationally graze will substantially improve utilization and help with maintaining quality.

If managed appropriately, the quality of these forages can be quite high allowing for stocker calf gains of 2 to 3 pounds per day. Cereal forages can also support the high requirements of a cow in early lactation without the need for supplementation. If properly managed, typically 2 to 4 AUM (animal unit months) per acre can be grazed in corn and soybean systems.

What does it cost?

Typical seeding rates for rye and triticale are 70 to 90 pounds per acre at a cost of $16 to $23. Custom rates for drill planting usually run $12 to $20 per acre. Often, 40 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre is applied and will cost $12 to $20, plus application costs of $10 to $15 per acre. Thus, total costs run $50 to $78 per acre and equate to a very cost effective $12 to $39 per AUM.

One of the major reasons producers use cover crops is to build soil organic matter. Much of the soil organic matter benefits are derived from the retention of plant root carbon. Unlike perennials, grazing annuals does not appear to affect root growth, regardless of grazing intensity. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that properly managed grazing of cereals would not negatively impact the organic matter benefits of growing them.

Be timely

Presence of cattle on cropland in the early spring can raise the penetration resistance of the soil, especially if cattle are grazing during wet conditions. However, the effects of grazing are usually below threshold levels that would impede root growth, being confined to the soil surface (0 to 2 inches). Often, these negative soil effects are short-lived due to wetting and drying cycles and microbial activity.

Adding cereal rye or triticale into a row-crop system can be a cost-effective forage source for early-spring grazing and at the same time can provide the conservation benefits of a cover crop. Timeliness is important for success since the window of opportunity for forage production is quite narrow.

This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 32.

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