Forage Shop Talk: Tom Kilcer

By Hay and Forage Grower
Tom Kilcer

Private crop consultant, researcher, and owner of Advanced Ag Systems based in Kinderhook, N.Y.

Tom Kilcer

HFG: Explain your early career shift as a fisheries biologist to agronomist with Cornell Extension?

TK: In fisheries, the culture at the time discouraged innovative outside the box thinking. Secondly, people don’t always need fish but do need to eat, so I saw working in agriculture as a more stable employment.

HFG: What do you consider to be the most effective forage management changes made by producers during your extension years from 1976 to 2009?

TK: Implementing crop rotations based on soil; feeding high-forage diets; the adoption of wide-swath, same-day haylage; and the implementation of minimum and no-tillage systems.

HFG: You were one of the early proponents of the “haylage-in-a-day” wide-swath system for alfalfa. What prompted this effort?

TK: I started the concept of haylage-in-a-day when I saw grazed forage samples with energy values the same as corn silage while our haylage was 20 percent less. High forage utilization in dairy rations was inhibited by excessive protein solubility, which I found could be reduced by same-day ensiling.

HFG: What are the biggest mistakes that you still see are being made with the wide-swath system?

TK: Often the mower is not laying out a wide enough swath. To make the system work, the swath needs to be greater than 80 percent of the cutterbar width. I also see too much “minimum tillage mowing,” which incorporates a lot of dirt in the forage. Wide-swath mowing and harvesting has been a major paradigm shift for both farmers and machinery companies.

HFG: Briefly explain what you do now as a crop consultant and independent research contractor?

TK: I conduct research on applied forage crops and production techniques. The findings are presented at seminars during the winter. I do a small amount of on-farm consulting.

HFG: You’ve done a lot of work using a double crop of winter annual cereals and summer annuals such as brown midrib (BMR) sorghum. What does this system offer for producers in the Northeast and Upper Midwest?

TK: Winter forages produce some of the highest, if not the highest, forage quality for high-producing dairy cows. Planting date drives yield; farmers need to plant early, which then also gives superior soil and nutrient retention and soil health improvement over the winter. We are still investigating exactly where and how BMR sorghum species fit on farms.

HFG: You seem to prefer triticale versus other winter annual species? Why?

TK: Winter triticale has been bred for forage quality, whereas most rye has not. Research at Cornell found triticale holds forage quality better in the spring than rye or wheat. It will not lodge at higher nitrogen rates like rye does; however, in side-by-side trials, triticale will outyield rye by 25 to 35 percent. Newer varieties of triticale will mature closer to rye.

HFG: What are the keys to success for growing triticale? Sorghum?

TK: The keys for winter triticale are to plant two weeks earlier than wheat, especially in the North; plant 1.25 inches deep using certified seed; fertilize in the fall (loves manure); fertilize in spring with nitrogen and sulfur; harvest at flag leaf (stage 9); and use the wide-swath, same-day haylage system.

We are still trying to figure out sorghum. My recent research is being analyzed as you read this and, hopefully, the results will give us clear management conclusions for Northern areas. Nutritionists need to learn that BMR sorghum silage is not the same as corn silage.

HFG: You’ve also done a lot of work with red clover. Do you feel this is an underutilized species for haylage?

TK: Hugely underutilized. It has superior forage quality to a lot of alfalfa that is harvested, fits in short rotations to maximize yields over the whole rotation, easily establishes in winter triticale, and can be dried for same-day haylage with proper management steps.

HFG: In your opinion, what is the one component of a farm’s forage enterprise that is most often
mismanaged or generally offers the greatest potential for improvement?

TK: Cost of crop production by field. Farms cull unproductive cows but continue with the same unprofitable, generic rotations on unproductive fields that they use on their good fields. Soils drive the rotation, which drives what the cows are fed.

HFG: Are you currently working on any new forage projects that you feel show promise?

TK: We are looking closely at BMR Pearl Millet and the management, quality, and yield of this potentially highly digestible crop.

HFG: Favorite food?

TK: Ice cream.

This article appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 22.

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