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The Cattle Connection

The cattlemen's connection to timely topics, current research, and profitable management strategies

Wet spring and cereal rye cover crop... now what?


I have fielded several calls this week pertaining to best harvest methods and potential feed value of quickly maturing cereal rye. Here are a few questions and answers.

When is the ideal time to harvest cereal rye?

Late boot stage. Cereal rye matures quickly, thus the ideal time to harvest may be only a 1 week window. Many producers have started using triticale because of a longer harvest window.

What is the best harvest method?

At this point, grazing is not a viable option for timely removal of the forage and still getting a cash crop put in the ground ASAP. Thus, mechanical harvest is the go-to. I would suggest chopping the forage. This will reduce the particle size helping the forage pack and ensile. This should result in a more palatable forage at feed-out.

Wet baling is an option. However, in over-mature rye the bales may be coarse, stemmy, and it is harder to remove air pockets to achieve proper fermentation. These factors reduce palatability and quality of the feed. A baler with knives can help this problem, but may not completely solve it.

Dry baling requires a longer harvest window and may be challenging with spring weather patterns. Moisture may vary in the field and in the windrow. This often causes uneven bale moisture and leads to problems in bales that are too wet. Bales that are too wet for dry hay are susceptible to molding and can be a fire risk. Be careful trying to dry bale cereal rye. It is hard to achieve complete dry down of heavy cereal rye stands. Wrapping bales that are between 20-40% moisture is not an alternative. Bales at these moisture levels will not ensile properly and could propagate dangerous bacteria like Listeria and Clostridiums. These bacteria can cause health problems and even death to cattle at certain concentrations.

What is the target moisture at harvest for chopping or wet-baling?

Target 50% moisture with an acceptable range of 40-60% for baleage. For chopped forages, I would recommend being on the higher end of the range. With a target of 55-60% moisture.

Should I use inoculant?

Yes. Inoculant will help add bacteria favorable to proper fermentation. If plant sugars are low, which is common in over-mature cereal grains or rained-on hay, a supplemental source of sugar may be beneficial to achieving fermentation. Mowing forages in the afternoon on sunny days helps increase plant sugar levels.

What kind of feed value will it be?

Feed value will vary. As forages mature, tonnage will increase and feed quality will decline. Cereal rye that is in full head will likely test 8-10% CP and in the low 50s for TDN. It is important to note, when taken at the ideal harvest time cereal rye can test in the low teens for CP and around 58-62 for TDN. As always, test your haylage for a nutrient analysis before feeding.

If I elect not to harvest as forage, what can I do to still be able to plant cash crop?

Everyone needs an exit strategy. If at some point you determine making feed from cereal rye is no longer cost effective, you have a few options for termination. Chemical termination is one. Spraying the stand of cereal rye with Glyphosate or Paraquat Dichloride can terminate the stand. Consult your chemical rep or Extension agronomist for rates and application best management practices.

Rolling with a crimper can be a termination method. This method is gaining traction with several farmers, but does require some specialized equipment and knowledge of the process.

I think it is very important to consider the following cash crop. Soybeans seem to allow more flexibility. They will tolerate larger residue amounts better than corn. If corn is the desired cash crop following rye, the forage is best removed and some starter fertilizer is likely needed. Allelopathy, the release of chemicals from one plant negatively impacting growth of a neighboring plant, can be a concern in corn following cereal rye.


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