Pasture and Forage Minute: Planning Winter Forages, Windrow Grazing
Winter Annual Forages
Are you planting or at least thinking about planting wheat, rye or triticale for forage next spring? Which of these small grains should you plant this fall? Let’s look at some of their characteristics to help you select.
Cereal rye is your best choice for the earliest grazing possible. Because it’s early, it also may be the best match for double cropping. Some varieties provide quite a bit of fall growth, too, if planted early. Rye also may be the most reliable when planted under stressful conditions. But it has some drawbacks. It turns stemmy and matures much earlier than wheat or triticale, losing feed value and palatability earlier in the spring. Plus, wheat grain producers don’t want it contaminating fields next year.
Triticale holds onto its feed value best into late spring. This makes it well suited for hay and silage, or for stretching grazing well into June if you don’t mind starting two or three weeks later compared to rye. But triticale tends to be a bit more susceptible to winter injury.
Winter wheat has been the small grain of choice for winter and spring grazing in the southern plains where higher winter temperatures allow growth to continue, although slowly. Up here where wheat goes dormant, though, its carrying capacity is not as high as triticale or rye. But it is top quality before stems develop. And it’s the clear choice if you want the double use as early pasture and then for grain.
So there it is. Rye for early pasture, triticale for hay, silage, or later grazing, and wheat for grazing plus grain. You may have other factors affecting your choice, but in general, these guidelines work well.
With feed cost being a top expense for many producers, one cost-reducing option to consider is windrow grazing. Let’s look at the advantages and challenges of implementing this practice in your operation.
Windrow grazing occupies a gray area between haying and grazing forages. When done correctly, it provides the best of both worlds, allowing harvest to occur at the optimal time for yield and quality, while eliminating the cost and labor of baling, storing and feeding hay. Properly cured, windrows can be grazed through the fall and winter, maintaining quality similar to stored round bales.
With less than 25% of precipitation in Nebraska occurring between October and March, fall harvesting forages face less pressure from weather. While windrow grazing can be practiced successfully statewide, central and western Nebraska may see better results due to an overall cooler and drier climate.
Along with climate, construction of the windrow will also aid in success. Thinner stemmed grass species fit best for this system including cool season grains like oats, triticale, barley and wheat, and warm season annuals like foxtail millet and sudangrass. A high, dense windrow is less susceptible to weathering loss. If forage yields are less than 1.5 tons/acre, consider raking two windrows together. Swath rows parallel to prevailing winds to keep blowing to a minimum and cut high to leave stubble the windrow can sit on, keeping it off of the ground.
When it comes time to use, portion off a section of field with temporary fence running perpendicular to the windrow. Start with providing one week’s worth of feed, then adjust the allotment to provide more or less as necessary. Even under snow, a well-built windrow will be easily accessed by cattle.
While best suited for the climate of central and western Nebraska, windrow grazing can be practiced statewide. To be successful, harvest in the fall for reduced weathering, build a dense windrow, and limit feed with temporary fence.
Alfalfa Winterization and Frost Concerns
We’ve already discussed when the last cutting of alfalfa should occur, but what about cold snaps and winterization?
When alfalfa experiences a non-killing frost, the lowest areas of a field may still be susceptible to damage. A killing frost usually occurs if the temperature is 24-29°F for approximately four to six hours, whereas a non-killing frost would be a temperature of 30°F to 32°F.
So what does frost mean for cutting? For non-killing frosts, there will be some damage to the tips of the alfalfa as well as some curled or wilted leaves. These plants will continue to growth well as fall progresses, but the quality will decline after each non-killing frost event. It is fine to cut after a non-killing frost; however, be sure that there has been ample winterization because regrowth will come from the crown buds and use the energy already stored for winter.
In a killing frost situation, cutting will need to take place soon after as the quality will quickly decline due to damage to the plant cells. If grazing, watch out for bloat; and this is only recommended if feed is needed.