Winter annual forages can be a very economic feed for cows and heifers. 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 at just before the head emerges.
A study published in eBarns (which can be found at go.osu.edu/ebarns2022 pages 26-27) compares winter annual cereal grain forages quality and yield. In this 3-year study, 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 5 tons per acre, which was one ton more than cereal rye. In this study 50 pounds of spring nitrogen was applied.
Variety trial study
Winter annual cereal forage varieties have different yields even within the same species. Penn State currently conducts a winter annuals forage variety trial that may not contain the variety you are planting, but shows yield differences and may serve as a guide if you still need seed. In the Penn State variety trial, all species were planted on the same day and harvested on the day they reach early boot stage. Within species yield and quality greatly differed between varieties. For cereal rye in 2022 the highest-yielding variety was KWS Propower, a hybrid variety, with a yield of 4.82 tons DM and 12.73% CP. The lowest yielding was KWS SH-103 at 2.91 tons DM. A conventional cereal rye variety Aroostook yielded 3.63 tons DM with a CP of 14.60%. The cereal rye varieties also had a 14-day maturity window between varieties.
Triticale also has huge differences in yield, but all varieties matured within one day of each other. The top-yielding triticale variety 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 maybe planting yield somewhere in the middle like TriCal Thor that yielded 4.17 ton of DM with a CP of 14.17%.
Nitrogen management is a critical part of winter annual forage production. Last winter we conducted a trial in Fremont, Ohio at the North Central Research Station on nitrogen and sulfur management. Our research showed slightly higher yields of .27 ton DM 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 but did influence crude protein. Seventy pounds of spring nitrogen increased crude protein by 1.5-2% over 50 pounds of spring nitrogen. Sulfur application in the spring of 20 pounds did not significantly increase yield but did show a yield trend increase and interestingly had significantly lower ash content than the treatments without sulfur.
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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