Pasture and Forage Minute: Small Grain Harvesting for Forage, Management Strategies for Musk Thistle, Pasture Fertilizer
Small Grain Hay or Silage Harvesting
Cattle producers needing forage may be considering harvesting small grains such as wheat, rye, triticale and oats as hay or silage. When deciding timing and method of harvest, begin with the end in mind, realizing that normally spring windrow drying can be a challenge.
For young growing cattle, small grain hay should be cut in the boot stage or as soon as possible following heading to ensure higher protein and energy content. Awnless (beardless) varieties are preferred if harvest is delayed past the full heading stage. Mature cow and feedlot managers may consider delaying their forage harvest until the hard dough development stage to increase forage quantity, since these cattle can utilize lower quality forage than younger beef animals.
In Nebraska Extension forage harvest studies, wheat and rye yields almost double by delaying spring harvest just one month. Compared to early May (boot stage) harvest, early June (soft dough growth stage development) irrigation biomass yields on average increase from 12 tons per acre to 20 tons per acre.
However, the trade-off for delaying forage harvest is that forage crude protein content decreases from 18% at the boot stage to 10% crude protein at the dough kernel grain stage.
Another downside to delayed small grain forage harvest is shortening the growing season for double-crop annual forages planting such as corn or sudangrass for fall silage.
When small grains are chopped for silage (wheatlage or ryelage), there may be opportunity for adding a week onto the subsequent annual crop growing season. If silage is your small grain harvest choice, moisture content is critical — the target moisture content for successful ensiling is 70-72% for proper packing. Generally, small grains have a 76-78% moisture content during the soft-dough grain stage with the moisture dropping 5% during the harvest process.
Controlling Musk Thistle
Did you have musk thistles last year? If so, I’m sure you’ll have them again this spring. And even through you may have done some herbicide control last fall, there are always those that may have been missed.
While corn and soybean planting are a top priority for many, this is also a very good time to control musk thistles. And I’ll also bet that you can get into your pastures to spray at least one or two days sooner than you can get into row crop fields to plant.
The current short rosette growth form in the spring is the ideal stage for controlling these plants. That means spray herbicides soon while your musk thistle plants still are in that rosette form, and very few plants will live to send up flowering stalks.
Several herbicides are effective and recommended for musk thistle control. Some popular herbicides include Milestone, Graslan L, and Tordon 22K. These herbicides will help control other difficult weeds like common mullein, as well.
Other herbicides that can control musk thistles in pastures this spring include Chaparral/Oversight, Cimarron, Telar, Transline, Redeem R&P, and Curtail. A tank mix of dicamba and 2,4-D also works very well. No matter which weed killer you use, be sure to read and follow label instructions and be especially sure to spray on time.
All these herbicides will work for you this spring if you spray soon, before musk thistles bolt and send up their flowering stalks. After flowering, the shovel is about the only method remaining to control thistles this year.
Fertilizing Warm-season Grass Pastures
Fertilizing warm-season grass is a practice some producers do, but one should consider forage needs, the value of the forage and fertilizer costs.
Warm-season grasses are very efficient at using water and nutrients. Where moisture is present, warm-season grasses will grow rapidly when air and soil temperatures increase. With fertilizer, growth will be more abundant, resulting in more hay or grazing days. Mid-May to early June is the window to fertilize.
How much fertilizer to apply depends on each operation. First, consider whether or not fertilizing is worth the cost. If extra growth won’t get grazed or extra hay won’t get fed, then fertilizing won’t be economical.
Knowing what species will be fertilized can also help with the decision. Taller growing warm-season grasses such as switchgrass, big bluestem and Indiangrass will be the most efficient with the fertilizer. Shorter warm-season grasses such as sideoats grama and little bluestem will respond less.
Moisture is the last key consideration.
In eastern Nebraska, in a year with average or above average moisture, a rate of 50 to 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre will have a great response. In a drier year, the response will be lower/less.
For central and western Nebraska, 40 pounds of nitrogen on sub-irrigated meadows will do well. Outside of sub-irrigated meadows, nitrogen may not pay off unless there is adequate moisture. Without moisture, the response may not be worth the cost.
Fertilizing warm-season grasses may be a benefit to an operation if done soon. Hay yield or grazing days may increase if managed well with fertilizer.