Seeding and fertilizing winter annual cereal grain forages

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Winter annual forages can be a very economical feed for dairy, beef, sheep and goats. The four most common winter annuals are rye, triticale, wheat and barley.

Of these four crops, the most challenging is barley, with it having less winter survivability in our research projects. The benefit to barley is a couple percent higher crude protein and smaller stems allowing this species to dry better than the other three for dry hay.

Barley crude protein stays higher even as the crop matures with similar protein levels at pollination to the other species, just before the head emerges. In a three-year study conducted at the Ohio State research stations in Jackson, Fremont and Custer, cereal rye had the highest yield when harvested just before the head emerges averaging 3.2 tons per acre of dry matter.

Harvesting later once the head emerged increased dry matter yield of triticale the most with a yield of five tons per acre, which was one ton more than cereal rye. In this study, 50 pounds of spring nitrogen was applied.

Winter annual cereal forage varieties have very different yields even within the same species. Within species yield and quality greatly differed between varieties. One cereal rye variety in a Penn State variety trial yielded 3.63 tons DM while another only yielded 2.91 tons.

The cereal rye varieties also had a 14-day maturity window between varieties. When planting cereal rye, we often plant a variety unstated as it is cheaper and easy to get and often used as a cover crop.

Triticale also has huge differences in yield, but all varieties mature in a much tighter number of days than the cereal rye. The top-yielding triticale variety in the Penn State trial was BCT 19004 with a yield of 4.94 ton of DM with 11.62% CP. The lowest yielding variety was BCT 19003 with a yield of 3.29 tons of DM and 11.46% CP. Many of the other varieties you may be planting yield somewhere in the middle like TriCal Thor which yielded 4.17 tons of DM with a CP of 14.17%.

There are many more varieties available that will do well in Ohio. When selecting varieties look for agronomic information on winter survival and disease tolerance. Another consideration is awns if the triticale is harvested after heading. Sheep especially can be affected by awns.

Nitrogen management is a critical part of winter annual forage production. Over the last two years, we conducted a trial in Fremont, Ohio, at the North Central Research Station on nitrogen and sulfur management on cereal rye.

Our research showed higher yields of .27 tons DM in 2022 and 1.5 tons more DM in 2023 when 20 pounds of nitrogen was applied in the fall at planting after soybeans compared to no additional nitrogen. Fall nitrogen had little effect on forage quality.

We also compared two spring nitrogen rates of 50 and 70 pounds plus 20 pounds of spring sulfur. Spring nitrogen rates of 70 pounds had no effect on yield compared to 50 pounds in 2022 but more spring nitrogen in 2023 increased yields by a ton with sulfur was also applied.

Spring nitrogen had a significant increase in crude protein. Seventy pounds of spring nitrogen increased crude protein by .5-2% over 50 pounds of spring nitrogen. Sulfur application in the spring of 20 pounds did significantly increase yield in 2023 when 70 pounds of nitrogen was applied.

Our trials only achieved crude protein values of 12.3%. Our top-yielding treatment was 6.8 tons DM and had 90 total pounds of nitrogen applied. This crop removed 270 pounds of nitrogen.

In our trial field without historical manure applications, we need to continue to investigate if crude protein would increase from more nitrogen applied but be careful the crop doesn’t lodge.

When trying to maximize forage profitability per acre consider managing your forage crop more like an agronomic crop. Consider variety selection for your needs looking at both yield and nutritional value. Also, consider nitrogen rate and timing. Your nitrogen may come from commercial fertilizer or liquid manure.

Work from New York also showed that unless there was residual nitrogen left over from the previous crop, a fall nitrogen application increased tillering and forage yield. This work also showed that if the field didn’t have fall manure or a history of manure application a spring nitrogen application increased yield.

By increasing your winter cereal grain forage management you can return even more to your operations profitability per acre.

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