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Spring Forage Crops for Early Silage

 

Spring Forage Crops for Early Silage

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Faced with dwindling forage supplies in silos and questionable alfalfa stands, dairymen and livestock producers are looking for ideas about growing an early silage crop. Several alternatives are available for growers looking to harvest forage that will help them stretch their supplies until after corn silage harvest. When considering the options there are several key things to know and factors to consider:

  • Alfalfa delivers protein. No crop provides crude protein yield like alfalfa - it is top of the list for total-season protein production.
  • Corn silage delivers yield and starch. No crop provides total dry matter and starch production like corn silage - it is top of the list for total-season digestible energy production.
  • What forage type are you short of? Consider whether summer forage is needed to make up for a shortage of corn silage or haylage or both. If making up for haylage, and there is already a hay crop growing on the farm, the shortage may be addressed using summer production to supplement a lack of haylage. Consider planting additional alfalfa this spring to increase total farm alfalfa production and avoid running out again in 2014 late winter.
  • Early forage does not deliver starch. If corn silage is running low, then it will be difficult to replace the starch component with an early forage crop. Small grains harvested at soft dough offer an early alternative that provides some starch, but will not be a one-to-one replacement for corn silage in the ration.
  • Small grain feed type differs based on harvest maturity. Spring small grains by themselves or with peas can be cut at 2 different growth stages for 2 different types of feed. Cut at boot stage they make very digestible forage with essentially no starch. Cut at the soft dough stage they provide starch, higher dry matter yield, but a lesser digestible forage fraction. Either harvest stage can make good forage but there are differences in harvest timing, yield, nutrient contributions to the ration, and feeding dynamics.
  • Salvaging existing alfalfa stands is only a short-term fix. When alfalfa stands are marginal and forage is needed, growers may think about harvesting at least the 1st cutting from these fields. This can provide some short-term relief for empty silos, but rarely is economical for the farm enterprise. Marginal alfalfa fields are best plowed down and rotated to another crop such as corn silage. If keeping these stands and grass is a strong part of the mixture, fertilize heavily with nitrogen (N) to maximize yield.

In the following tables, key early forage options are described, including management strategies and expectations around harvest timing, yield and quality.

Fall-Seeded Small Grain (Winter Wheat, Winter Triticale, Winter Rye)

Planting Date
  • Seeded previous fall in September or October
Planting Rate or Stand Density
  • Look for more than 12-15 live plants/sq ft in the spring with multiple tillers forming
Fertility Need
  • High requirement for early spring N to achieve best forage yields
  • Total N rates of 80-120 lbs/acre applied at spring green-up
Weed Control
  • Consult herbicide labels to determine forage harvest restrictions before applying to small grain crop
Expected Harvest Date
  • Mid-May to mid-June depending on location
  • Plant development may be delayed if stands were slow to establish in the fall or suffered winter damage
Harvest Management
  • Harvest as soon as possible after heading to maximize yield and quality - lignin and fiber increase quickly as the head emerges
  • Field wilt after cutting to 65% moisture content for ensiling
  • Ensile to reduce nitrates when high N rates have been applied
Expected Yield Range
  • Boot stage: 2-3 tons DM/acre
  • Heading stage: 2.5-4 tons DM/acre
Ensiling Management
  • Use Pioneer® brand 11G22 inoculant for best fermentation and aerobic stability
Expected Nutritive Value
  • 90% to 95% of bud/early flower stage alfalfa, but lower fiber digestibility
  • 80% to 85% of corn silage
Postharvest Options
  • Plant early season corn for silage
  • Seed alfalfa
  • Seed small grain for late fall harvest if moisture is adequate

 

Spring-Seeded Small Grain or Small Grain-Pea Mixture

Planting Date
  • April to early May - both small grains and peas grow at 40 F and put most tonnage when planted early in the year when adequate soil moisture is available
Planting Rate or Stand Density
  • Small grains seeded alone: Barley (80-100 lbs/acre), Oats (75-90 lbs/acre), Triticale (100-120 lbs/acre)
  • Peas in mixture: 75-150 lbs/acre depending on seed size (goal is to have 4-6 plants per sq ft)
  • Reduce seeding rates by 25% to 30% when under seeding alfalfa
  • Reduce small grain seeding rate by 25% to 30% when seeding in mixture with peas
Fertility Need
  • High requirement for early spring N to achieve best forage yields
  • Total N rates of 80-120 lbs/acre applied at spring green-up
  • If seeding alfalfa, make certain soil pH and P, K nutrients are in the optimum range or above
Weed Control
  • Consult herbicide labels to determine forage harvest restrictions before applying to small grain crop
Expected Harvest Date
  • Late May to mid/late June depending on location
Harvest Management
  • Harvest as soon as possible after heading to maximize protein yield and quality - lignin and fiber increase quickly as the head emerges
  • Harvest at soft dough stage to maximize starch and energy content of forage
  • Field wilt after cutting to 65% moisture content for ensiling
  • Ensile to reduce nitrates when high N rates have been applied
Expected Yield Range
  • Most spring-seeded small grains forages can be expected to yield 2-3.5 tons DM/acre
Ensiling Management
  • Small grain forages can be difficult to pack adequately. Use Pioneer® brand 11G22 inoculant for best fermentation and aerobic stability. In addition to the benefits of 11G22, consider Pioneer® brand 11GFT inoculant for improved fiber digestibility.
Expected Nutritive Value
  • 90% to 95% of bud/early flower stage alfalfa
  • 80% to 85% of corn silage
Postharvest Options
  • Plant early season corn for silage
  • Seed alfalfa
  • Seed small grain for late fall harvest if moisture is adequate

 

Spring-Seeded Cool-Season Grasses

Planting Date
  • April to early May

Planting Rate or Stand Density
  • Fescues: seeded alone (15 lbs/acre), in mixture (6 lbs/acre)
  • Orchardgrass: seeded alone (10 lbs/acre), in mixture (2-4 lbs/acre)
  • Ryegrasses: seeded alone (20-25 lbs/acre), in mixture (2 lbs/acre)
  • Bromegrass: seeded alone (16 lbs/acre), in mixture (3-6 lbs/acre)
  • Timothy: seeded alone (8 lbs/acre), in mixture (2-4 lbs/acre)
Fertility Need
  • High requirement for N to achieve best forage yields
  • Total N rates of 80-120 lbs/acre applied throughout the season
Weed Control
  • Consult herbicide labels to determine forage harvest restrictions before applying to small grain crop
Expected Harvest Date
  • Multiple harvests per year - harvest 4-6 times per season depending on environmental conditions
  • Expect highest tonnage on 1st and 2nd cutting dates and late fall growth for cool-season grasses
Harvest Management
  • Harvest at late vegetative or boot stage of development for highest quality - lignin and fiber increase quickly as the head emerges
  • Field wilt after cutting to 65% moisture content for ensiling
  • Ensile to reduce nitrates when high N rates have been applied
Expected Yield Range
  • Cool-season forage grasses can be very productive, delivering anywhere from 2-3 tons DM/acre depending on planting date, early spring soil moisture status and N fertility
Ensiling Management
  • Cool-season grasses can be difficult to pack adequately. Use 11G22 inoculant for best fermentation and aerobic stability. In addition to the benefits of 11G22 inoculant, consider 11GFT inoculant for improved fiber digestibility.
Expected Nutritive Value
  • 90% to 95% of bud/early flower stage alfalfa
  • 80% to 85% of corn silage  
Postharvest Options
  • Plant early season corn for silage
  • Seed alfalfa
  • Seed small grain for late fall harvest if moisture is adequate

 

Very Early Maturity Corn for Silage

Planting Date
  • Plant early spring as soon as ground is fit
Planting Rate or Stand Density
  • Maintain high plant populations for maximum tonnage
Fertility Need
  • High requirement for N to achieve best forage yields along with optimum phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) fertility
Weed Control
  • Consult herbicide labels to determine forage harvest restrictions and before applying to corn crop
Expected Harvest Date
  • Mid-August to mid-September depending on growing conditions and hybrid maturity
  • Look to plant a corn hybrid that is at least 10 days RM earlier than your normal grain maturity for your area for earliest harvest
Harvest Management
  • Monitor plant development and drydown shortly after ear development. Harvest when WP moisture is 63% to 68% and when full grain development has occurred.
Expected Yield Range
  • Excellent silage yields will range from 10-20 tons/acre depending on planting date, hybrid maturity and growing season
Ensiling Management
  • Use Pioneer® brand 11C33 inoculant for best fermentation and aerobic stability. In addition to the benefits of 11C33, growers can enhance corn silage digestibility by applying Pioneer® brand 11CFT inoculant
Expected Nutritive Value
  • Typical corn silage nutritive value is expected
Postharvest Options
  • Seed alfalfa if herbicide carryover will not be an issue and if sufficient time for fall growth (6 weeks) is available
  • Utilize these acres for early manure applications

Pioneer® brand 11C33 inoculant with super low volume (SLV) applicator conserves important and expensive nutrients by enhancing fermentation and aerobic stability.

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PIONEER® brand products are provided subject to the terms and conditions of purchase which are part of the labeling and purchase documents.