Fall-seeded small grains: More than just an emergency forage? (Jon Urness)
Some dairy producers in the eastern U.S., particularly in areas of eastern Pennsylvania and parts of New York, regularly fall-seed rye and triticale as mainstays of their lactating dairy rations.
Conversely, here in the upper Midwest, such crops are generally regarded as emergency forages reserved for times when drought or other growing conditions reduce the supply of good alfalfa haylage or corn silage. And, at best, these feeds seem suited only for youngstock and dry cows. That’s exactly what happened following the drought year of 2012 in the Midwest. But can these crops also become mainstays up here in the frozen tundra?
Why it’s done in the East
Let’s start with farmland values. According to the USDA, average cropland values in Wisconsin in 2012 were $4,300 per acre compared to $5,700 for an acre of farmland in Pennsylvania. But that only tells part of the story. In some eastern Pennsylvania counties, where population densities are some of the highest in the nation and that population coexists with agriculture, average cropland sells for more than $20,000 per acre. So, dairy producers in such places as Lancaster County, Pennsylvania need to harvest as much dry matter as possible per acre. Double-cropping fall-seeded rye or triticale after corn silage makes a lot of sense.
What about ration consistency? That’s one of the big reasons dairy producers like the strategy. They harvest rye and triticale once in late April or early May, then plant a corn silage-specific variety of corn and, naturally, harvest it just once as well. The result is bunkers and bags full of forage with minimal moisture and quality variation – just what the doctor ordered for high milk production.
The weather is also a factor. Though our eastern friends deal with the same weather-related challenges we do, their growing season is a couple weeks longer at each end. Plus, their winters are generally much milder.
Why it might not work here
We can get a late fall, mild winter and early spring strung together once in a while, but, on the average, our growing season just doesn’t cooperate for double-cropping on a consistent basis.
University of Wisconsin-Extension agronomist Dan Undersander said, “I think small grains will remain as a cover crop for alfalfa seeded in the spring and as an emergency forage. Our season is not really long enough for double-cropping. We want to plant a full season corn to maximize corn or corn silage yield and then there isn’t enough time after that to seed and expect yield. Also, consider that the alfalfa fixes nitrogen and has a rotational value to the corn (15- to 20-percent yield increase) where the small grains will not.”
Undersander explained that it’s difficult to compare the eastern U.S. to the Midwest because we certainly have a shorter growing season and often experience fall weather that is too dry for seeding or good growth before winter. He also believes alfalfa yields in Wisconsin are often understated by USDA statistical reporting, and that’s another trump card supporting our traditional corn-alfalfa rotations.
“National Agricultural Statistics Service data says average all alfalfa yield for Wisconsin is 4.5 tons per acre and corn is 6.0 tons per acre. Our low-lignin alfalfa varieties will wipe out this difference. The top alfalfa varieties have yielded 2.24 tons per acre more per year than the lowest-yielding alfalfa varieties in trials,” he said.
Undersander also believes the two crops (alfalfa and corn) really complement each other in that corn silage is an “all or nothing” crop. For example, this year he is seeing low fiber digestibility while other years digestibility is much higher. His conclusion is that having the two crops offers some flexibility and security.