COLUMNISTS

What can I grow in a notoriously wet field?

Ashley Blackburn

If you battle wet conditions in the same field year after year, you may consider planting an alternative crop to meet your farm’s forage needs.  Grasses can be a good fit in these conditions.

In addition to their benefits as forage crops, grasses can also be a land management tool because they can be adapted to a wide range of soil types and positively impact soil erosion, soil compaction, water filtration and drainage, and manure management options.  When grasses are grown in a mix with legumes, the legumes can provide increased soil fertility. Here in central Wisconsin in 2019, we were faced with a very wet growing season in addition to winterkilled alfalfa.  It worked well to interseed grasses into the winterkilled alfalfa stands. 

All grasses are not created equal.  The best type of grass to grow is different for each operation based on its field conditions, needs and goals.  Just like corn, grass maturity and type matter. Some grasses are early maturing and others are late-maturing; some grasses are perennial and some are annual. 

Grasses can produce great tonnage and quality from each cutting if put on the same cutting schedule as alfalfa. Most grasses we have seen will have an NDF kd rate of no greater than 6% per hour because they contain a high amount of potentially digestible NDF, which equates to a longer time for it to digest fully in the rumen. 

Ryegrass is becoming more prevalent

Ryegrass has been more prevalent in dairy and beef diets and used as a cover crop as well. It also offers extra resilience and productivity. Because there are different types of ryegrass, you need to weigh their benefits and determine what fits best in your system. 

Ryegrass can be a diploid, a tetraploid or both.  What does that mean?  Diploids have two sets of chromosomes per cell and tetraploids have four sets of chromosomes per cell. Each type has its own benefits, which are listed below. If you go with a grass mix  that has both diploid and tetraploid, you have the best of both worlds.

All grasses are not created equal.

Diploid                                                         

  • Prostrate plant structure (grows closer to the ground, keeping soil cool and protecting it from drying out)       
  • Combines yield and robustness
  • Densely tillered                                           
  • Competitive with weeds                             
  • Handles wetter environments                   
  • Handles lower fertility                                 
  • Forgiving under stressed environments  
  • Improved persistence                                  

Tetraploid

  • Erect plant structure (grows straight up with potential branching of main stem)
  • Palatable (higher soluble carbohydrates)
  • Higher forage quality
  • Improved utilization (higher proportion of digestible fiber) 
  • Better animal performance
  • Better silage quality
  • Visually more impressive

Ryegrasses can either be perennial, annual or biennial.

  • Perennial ryegrass can last for two to three years and produce seed heads once in a year, usually in late spring.
  • Italian ryegrass is biennial.  It is typically planted in spring, harvested several times throughout the year, and then terminated either in late fall or early spring, depending on what time works best for your operation. To maximize forage quality, Italian ryegrass should be harvested in the vegetative state.  The grass must be terminated so that it doesn't head out.  Note that 3% to 5% may head out during the growing season.
  • Annual ryegrasses are planted in the fall as a winter annual, in combination with a small grain or clover, and harvested the following spring.

With any crop, you must make sure you feed and meet the nutrient needs of the plant, whether its via commercial fertilizer or manure.  Manure fits well with grasses as they are a bit more resilient. If using commercial fertilizer, a combination of AMS (ammonium sulfate) or a nitrogen source, sulfur, and potassium has produced great tonnage and quality.

Work with your agronomy and forage consultants to select the right grass for your fields and forage program.

Ashley Blackburn

Ashley Blackburn is an agronomy and forage specialist with Vita Plus