When to plant – and harvest – forage crops

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by Enrico Villamaino

The Extension programs at UMass, the University of Maine and the University of Vermont have collaborated on a joint study of the benefits of different types of forage crops.

The three institutions pooled their resources and collected over four years of data. Funding for the study was provided in part by a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Northeast. Their findings were presented in an online seminar on Aug. 28.

Dr. Sam Corcoran presided over the webinar. Corcoran is a researcher and lab manager in the UMass Extension program. She works as a botany and plant biology specialist in the school’s Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.

The study addressed how to best harvest overwintering crops as forage by grazing and harvesting in autumn and spring. Also included in the study’s findings were fall planting dates, species-specific information and other management considerations.

“I often get asked what the difference is between cover crops and forage crops,” Corcoran said. “The difference is you harvest forage crops.”

Cover crops are planted to manage soil erosion, fertility and quality in an agroecosystem. Forage crops are produced to be grazed or harvested for use as feed for animals.

Corcoran outlined three types of forage crops that were studied in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. “We have rye, wheat and triticale, which is a hybrid of rye and wheat. Each of these plants has its own personality. It’s important to look at the pros and cons of each,” she said.

When discussing rye, Corcoran pointed to a select breed. “I’m a big fan of Wheeler rye. It’s ready first, it’s very reliable and consistent. It also has the highest yields,” she noted. She did point out that rye is not the best choice for overly wet fields, and that it has just an average feed quality in terms of protein. “When using rye as forage, you’re feeding it to your animals for maintenance, not weight gain. Unlike rye, which can get away from you, wheat comes along more slowly.”

Corcoran stated that in addition to being the slowest of the three studied forage crops to mature, wheat also has the lowest overall yield. On the other hand, wheat does much better in wetter conditions and has the highest crude protein content.

“Some people feel that triticale is the best of both worlds,” Corcoran explained. “It has rye’s winter hardiness and an elevated protein value from its wheat-related roots.” Triticale was first bred in Scotland and Germany in the late 19th century. “There’s a lot of potential with triticale; there are some great breeding programs.” Corcoran admitted that some farmers regard triticale as “just average.” Its yields are higher than wheat but lower than rye, and its crude protein content is superior to rye but beneath that of wheat.

Addressing when to plant these forage crops, Corcoran was adamant that “timing is important.” Farmers should determine whether or not they want an autumn or a spring grazing or harvest. While delaying plantings from Sept. 1 – 15 might result in a 20% reduction in a fall grazing yield, waiting until the end of September to plant can see an 82% crop yield reduction. Corcoran concluded, “You just can’t fight the biology.”

For spring grazing and harvests, there used to be a firm deadline of Sept. 1 for planting forage crops, but Corcoran said there is a bit more leeway today. “Now, we say you can plant as late as September 15. Due to climate change it is a bit warmer a little longer, and the planting window is somewhat larger,” she said.

Corcoran said that reaping 110 pounds of usable crop per acre is ideal. Once the grazing and harvesting is done, there are two main termination plans for farmers’ fields.

“Glyphosate is one method that works,” she said. Glyphosate does not leave residue in the soil, but can potentially contaminate water sources. The other option is tillage, but unfortunately the crop residue is often too short to be tilled with a conventional roller crimper.

“Frankly,” admitted Corcoran, “we need recommendations. If anyone has any ideas on better termination plans, let us know.”

Corcoran recommended that farmers incorporate forage plantings into their existing field schedules. “Don’t set aside fields for this. This is something that can be helpful to you, it fits in with dairy farmers very well, but you shouldn’t disrupt how you’re using your fieldspace now,” she said. She pointed out that this practice is hardly revolutionary, and farmers in the region have been using this strategy for years.

“We actually found an article in an issue of Nature Magazine from 1889 that covered the advantages of planting forage crops for spring grazing,” she said. “This is not a new idea, but it is a good idea.”

For more information visit sg.umass.edu and northeast.sare.org.

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