Are winter cereals worth considering for dairy?

Matt Lippert
Parts of Wisconsin have been dry, corn silage will be coming off early and with an early harvest and short forage supplies there is interest in planting triticale or cereal rye for harvest next spring to extend forage supplies.

Parts of Wisconsin have been dry, corn silage will be coming off early and with an early harvest and short forage supplies there is interest in planting triticale or cereal rye for harvest next spring to extend forage supplies. 

In Central Wisconsin rain has been consistent and forage supplies are excellent. Corn silage and corn grain yields are expected to be above average. Even with abundant forage supplies there are reasons to consider off-season winter forage crops such as triticale and rye. The price outlook is strong for corn and soybeans. If we can catch some forage tonnage during the off season, we may be able to dedicate more acres next year to cash crops or reduce purchase of these for on farm livestock. 

Simply put, there is a case for planting winter cereals now, no matter what the local forage situation.

One reason for this change in approach is with new understanding of fiber digestibility based on forage tests for NDF digestibility, these feeds have been found, if made at the right stage, to be very good quality. They are not just a poor substitute to utilize in an emergency, they may produce some of the most digestible fiber on the farm for the entire year. Granted there is an IF in the last sentence. 

Rye especially, can get away from you and become the straw like product many of us are familiar with.

There are negatives against these crops: It is adding an entire additional enterprise to the farm as far as labor and inputs, there is a learning curve to be mastered to have success, yields can be low and expense per ton of feed produced can be high.

A combine moves through a field of triticale, harvesting grain and leaving swaths for the cows to feed on in the winter in Mandan, North Dakota. Winter cereal grains being utilized for conservation benefits on row crop farms do have a place on dairy farms.

If we achieve success through early establishment and fertility of obtaining a high yield stand, we will next find that it can be hard to dry down to acceptable levels in the month of May which is cooler and wetter than many of us are familiar with harvest dry down conditions. 

While altering the timeline of harvest and planting of corn and soybeans may open some new opportunities for manure applications and spreading out labor, the May harvest will come at a time that competes with other spring tillage and planting activities.

These crops can mature very quickly and move from dairy quality to filler status in the diet. If you have a replacement herd or animals that don’t require high NDFd, the risk is less, as you may aim to make dairy quality feed but still have a use for it if it suddenly doesn’t meet the standards for a milking cow.

There are positives to these crops as well. They are planted as cover crops even with no livestock on the farm. As a cover they have nutrient recycling, erosion control, soil microbial support, weed control and soil tilth building attributes. Possibly they could qualify for some carbon or other conservation financial programs. Weather risk is reduced by diversifying the crops that you harvest and utilizing a part of the year not typically used to grow crops.

We have an above average outlook for corn and soybean prices. The short-term value, call it what you will, opportunity cost, the “rent” is higher for your land, due to these prices, even if you own it. In areas of expensive land there are more double cropping systems utilized. The higher current value of land drives the interest in harvesting more crop per acre.

Producers report using shorter maturity corn silage hybrids to move the harvest window earlier to get the winter cereals in the ground sooner with only slight reduction in silage yield and they enjoy the more reliable weather of an earlier harvest. Trit or rye can be removed by mid-May, and give time for planting soybean, corn for silage, warm season annuals or establishing a hay crop after this planting date. 

Rye can be planted late in October with a high reliability of a catch, but the expected yield for the next season is much lower than if the planted earlier with more time to tiller and fill in before winter comes. If early establishment is accomplished and a thick stand of winter cereal is there, it will justify timely applications of nitrogen. 

Nitrogen will encourage development in the fall and can raise protein content and yield when applied in the spring. If the stand is thin, the extra expense of the nitrogen may not be justified.

In short, nitrogen guidelines are tricky for these crops. If you utilize guidelines for winter wheat or rye, that are based on optimizing N inputs when these crops are utilized for grain you will use less nitrogen than if you are interested in maximizing forage yield and improving protein levels in the forage.   

What is called luxury consumption of N in a grain system can be a very good investment if you compare the cost of nitrogen fertilizer (even if high) to the cost of purchased protein supplement (often high also when fertilizer inputs are high.) If expected yield of forage DM stays in the 1 ton per acre range, it is difficult to justify higher levels of Nitrogen.

Nitrogen also will encourage a taller plant that is more at risk to lodging. A thick well tillered stand established early in the season intended to be used for forage will not suffer the loss of value as compared to those crops intended for grain or seed production. Triticale will tiller more than rye and therefore is more responsive to early establishment.

The use of manure may simplify the worries about purchased fertilizer cost, but it is very important not to allow manure applications to delay planting date of these crops if the yield goal is an important part of the equation.

Protein levels of 17-18% are very obtainable, or we can see levels of 12% and below.  NDF will typically be in the 50’s to over 60 but the NDFd level can make that higher NDF level valuable if harvested at flag-leaf stage (pre-boot) to boot stage.  While that is less protein and higher NDF than alfalfa, NDFd can be superior to alfalfa.

These crops take some learning to master, they will not have a fit for everyone. These same crops that are being utilized for conservation benefits on row crop farms do have a place on dairy farms.

Matt Lippert

Matt Lippert is the Clark and Wood County Dairy and Livestock Agent