Winter cereal forage has fully transitioned from a niche crop to that of a crop rotation mainstay on many farms. The fast-growing nature of cereals makes them a perfect double-crop fit with several commonly grown row crops. It’s also this lightning quick maturity curve that is responsible for a fast-closing harvest window, especially if dairy-quality feed is desired.
What’s interesting to note among serious winter rye, triticale, and wheat growers — those who grow it every year — is the varied reasons they give for doing so.
Many are in search of a heifer or dry cow feed that doesn't pack quite the nutritional punch of corn silage or alfalfa. Others cite winter cereals’ consistency in terms of yield and quality, often feeding it as a significant component of the milking cow ration. Some have been attracted by the crop's land conservation and soil quality attributes. Finally, there have been some dairy producers who like or need an additional manure-spreading outlet in late spring. Often, winter rye is initially grown just to fill the need for an emergency forage.
With the wet, cool spring across much of the U.S. in 2019, winter cereal maturity may surge ahead of other normal spring field activities. Though corn planting may be behind schedule, don’t forget to keep an eye on the progress of winter cereals.
For high-quality dairy feed, the optimum harvest stage for cereals is mid- to late boot. This is when the flag leaf has emerged and unfolded but before seedheads are visible. The window to hit this stage is usually only a few days. As is the case with most forage species, if temperatures are cool, optimum forage quality will be maintained longer than if temperatures are warm to hot.
Delaying harvest past the boot stage will dramatically boost forage yields, but quality will suffer. In some cases, this may be acceptable if heifers or beef cows will utilize the feed.
In addition to the narrow harvest window, rainfall this time of year can also be a detriment for getting cereals cut and harvested; sometimes it’s the biggest deterrent.
Tom Kilcer, an independent crop consultant based in Kinderhook, N.Y., recommends spreading the cereal forage out as wide as possible when cutting. This puts more of the wilting crop in contact with the sun, enhancing the dry-down rate.
Kilcer also suggests that even wide swaths may need additional manipulation with a tedder to speed drying. This is especially true if swath widths are less than 80 percent of cut width. He recommends tedding be done about two hours after cutting to spread and invert the forage. Minimizing time from cutting to chopping or making baleage helps preserve forage quality.
Consider the following crop
Often, the dealmaker or breaker concerning winter rye is the impact on the subsequent corn crop. This is a particularly important issue across the Northern states where shorter growing seasons exist. Delayed planting can significantly reduce corn yields, grain or silage, and is one more reason to get winter cereals harvested in a timely manner.
On the plus side, sandwiching a winter cereal between two corn silage crops provides a rotational benefit to second-year corn. The degree to which this occurs varies with the year, hybrid planted, and how long planting is delayed.
The worst two first-generation armyworm-damaged cornfields that I’ve seen in my lifetime were both in situations where the corn followed winter rye. Armyworm moths, if present at the right time and place, find cereal grass an attractive egg-laying habitat. Though not a reason to avoid the practice, it is a reason to pay close attention to cornfields following winter rye and kill any grassy weeds or volunteer rye in a timely manner.
A few thoughts on spring cereals
Though spring planting small grains for forage has become somewhat less common in recent years, there is still a significant amount of alfalfa acreage planted with an oat companion crop. Once again, the narrow harvest window comes into play and may actually be amplified because air temperature is generally assured to be hot at the time of harvest.
In addition to forage quality considerations, a timely harvest for spring cereal plantings is needed to eliminate competition with the alfalfa. From the time oats reach the boot stage until the grain matures, only bad things can happen to the underseeded alfalfa. These include:
• Severe moisture and light competition that may lead to a reduction in established alfalfa plants.
• Lodging of the small grain and the subsequent smothering of the alfalfa plants.
• Insect infestations (potato leafhopper) that injure or kill alfalfa plants. Such injury usually goes undetected and untreated because of the standing small grain crop.
Cereal forages, whether spring or fall planted, provide the opportunity to harvest generous yields of high-quality, relatively low-cost forage. But to achieve that end, attention to harvest timing will be needed. That may be especially true in 2019.