By Everett D. Thomas

One of the most commonly requested topics at farmer meetings this past winter was double-cropping and how it fits into dairy farm cropping plans. The options you have depend to a considerable extent on where you live in the eastern U.S. The following comments are intended primarily for the northeastern U.S. and the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia area.

Winter cereals: Triticale is where it’s at

Winter triticale has overtaken winter rye as the fall-seeded cereal of choice for farmers intending to harvest a forage crop the following spring. Winter rye is more commonly used when the primary purpose is erosion prevention and “capturing” nitrogen left over from the previous corn crop. However, winter triticale has become so popular that seed has sold out for the past three years. This is partly due to triticale’s popularity in the Northwest and Southeast. (This article is appearing well ahead of when triticale is planted, so you can get your seed order in early.)

Both species are quite winter-hardy (though last winter was challenging), but rye doesn’t respond as well to spring nitrogen applications. There’s been quite a bit of research on spring fertilization of triticale, since nitrogen not only increases yields, but also boosts crude protein levels. In general, 50 to 75 pounds of nitrogen per acre is enough, particularly on dairy farms where there may be some residual nitrogen from previous manure applications. Research has found that for every additional 20 pounds of nitrogen, you can expect a 1 percent increase in crude protein when the crop is harvested at the proper stage of development.

Timing is everything

Well, perhaps not everything, but it’s important when planting winter triticale. Since most triticale is planted following harvest of corn for silage, try to get it planted soon after the last truckload of corn pulls out of the field. Results will vary depending on where you farm, but in central New York research, triticale yielded over 1 ton more dry matter (DM) per acre when the crop was planted in mid-September versus early October. (The mid-September planting included starter fertilizer, but previous research suggests that starter fertilizer was only partly responsible for the higher yield.)

Many farmers may find it difficult to get triticale planted by mid-September, but yields were still OK with early October planting, so the key is to get it planted as soon as you can.

Note the term “planting,” meaning with a grain drill, not broadcast as is often done with winter rye. Triticale needs to have sufficient soil cover so it will germinate quickly and develop a good root system. In general, plant triticale 1.25 to 1.5 inches deep. Proper planting depth is particularly important with later planting dates. Planting can be done with conventional or no-till drills, though if the soil is compacted or otherwise tough to penetrate, a light tillage pass may be necessary to loosen up the top few inches of soil.

Timing is also critical during harvest. Triticale can produce forage suitable for milking cows when harvested at the flag leaf stage (prior to head emergence). Triticale can still provide quality forage after the head has emerged, but by that time it will be better for heifers and perhaps dry cows. The “perhaps” is because triticale, particularly that grown on highly fertile land, may be quite high in potassium, which could limit its use for pre-fresh dry cows. Before you feed triticale to these cows, you should get a wet chemistry analysis to confirm mineral content, particularly potassium. Work with your dairy nutrition consultant to decide the best use for triticale silage.

Don’t even think of harvesting winter triticale for dry hay! A decent crop of triticale is heavy, wet forage that is very hard to dry due to the moist soil conditions and weather at that time of year. Even when harvesting triticale as silage you’ll need to spread the swath as wide as your mower will allow, and you may need to use a tedder to increase the drying rate. If you do ted the forage, operate the tedder at a low speed, stirring the swath rather than using a more aggressive action, or you could turn the tedder into a pile of scrap metal.

Even with proper windrow management, triticale mowed in the morning may still be less than 30 percent DM in late afternoon. As long as you’re able to deal with the potential of some silage effluent, if the crop is approaching 30 percent DM it may be better to increase your theoretical length of cut (TLC) to 1 inch and chop it that afternoon instead of letting the crop sit in the field overnight.

A long TLC will reduce effluent but may not eliminate it. Research at the University of Delaware found that butyric acid isn’t present at harvest; production of this acid increases slowly after mowing, which suggests that if you can mow and chop triticale (or other fall-planted cereal) the same day, you should be able to prevent or at least limit butyric acid production.

What comes after harvest?

After triticale harvest you have several crop choices. The most common one is to plant corn, though this may mean using an earlier-maturity corn hybrid than you would normally plant. It’s estimated that for every five days less in relative maturity (RM), you’ll lose about a quarter ton of corn silage DM yield.

For example, a 90 RM hybrid would yield, on average, half a ton less DM (or about 1.5 tons less corn silage with 32 to 35 percent DM) compared to a 100 RM hybrid. However, some early-season hybrids have very high yield potential, and as long as they’re planted soon after triticale harvest there may be very little “yield drag.”

Triticale yields depend on a number of factors, but farmer experience suggests that 2 to 3 tons of DM per acre is common. Therefore, you would be likely to gain more total yield with a combination of triticale and an early-maturity corn hybrid than you would with a full-season corn hybrid. Also, the triticale silage would be ready to feed months before the corn silage is fully fermented.

Dealing with a heavy triticale sod can be a challenge, and one recommended practice is deep zone tillage. Chisel plowing a triticale sod may result in many large root balls that are hard to break up. There’s also some concern about an allelopathic effect on the corn crop caused by toxins in the triticale sod.

A second option is soybeans, which reportedly do well when planted or drilled into small grain stubble – and there’s no allelopathic effect.

One final option that should be considered experimental at this time but may be worth trying on a modest acreage: Leave the field fallow for about a month after triticale harvest and then apply a low rate of nonresidual herbicide to control weeds. Wait until there’s sufficient soil moisture and plant alfalfa using a grain drill with press wheels. The press wheels are critical to get good seed-to-soil contact. With normal summer moisture, you should be able to harvest at least one cut of alfalfa in late summer. We’re not sure how a forage grass seeded with the alfalfa would do, so it may be better to drill the grass into the just-harvested alfalfa stubble. Tom Kilcer of Advanced Ag Systems is continuing his research on this practice. There may be some risk involved, but remember the turtle, which makes no progress unless it sticks its neck out.

Ev Thomas has worked as an agronomist in New York for 48 years, first with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, then with the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, New York, including managing its 680-acre crop operation. He continues to work part-time for Miner Institute and is now an agronomist at Oak Point Agronomics. He has written our Forages column for 16 years and has been an expert contributor on a number of other topics.