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Using Cover Crops as Spring Forage
by LuAnn Rolling, NRCS District Conservationist
It has been beautiful to drive around Allamakee County and see all the green, growing cover crops. Besides the tremendous soil health building, erosion stopping, fertility grabbing qualities these covers are providing they can also be a great forage source for next spring. According to Dr. Bill Deen, a retired researcher at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, winter cover crops have higher forage yield potential than spring cereals. He and his colleagues showed that oats yield around .9 tons/acre (DM) while fall rye can yield 1.2 tons/acre (DM). The cover crops that have over wintered provide forage when supplies of stored forages are running low. This can be a “home-grown” boost to feed inventories when hay prices are at their highest. Over wintered cover crops are also ready to be grazed before perennial pastures. If infrastructure, such as fences and water, are available, grazing winter cereals can provide a longer rest for perennial pastures.  Conventional wisdom says turning livestock out to pasture a day too early in the spring costs three days of grazing in the fall.
Deen says that while fall rye is the most commonly used winter cereal for forage in Ontario, since it is the most winter hardy and the earliest maturing, winter wheat is more palatable. He warns that by the time winter wheat reaches flag-leaf to early boot stage crop options to follow are limited. He adds that triticale is ready to harvest 7-14 days later than rye. He says that winter barley seems to consistently winter kill in southern Ontario and is therefore not a good choice for a forage double crop.
Deen offers several ways to get the most out of forage winter cereals.  These are:
• Fertilize to reach full forage potential. He suggests if no manure is available apply P and K in the spring at green-up.
• Plant at a forage seeding rate which would be heavier than a cover crop rate. He suggests 100 lbs./acre.
• Plant early. This gives the crop plenty of time to tiller in the fall. He also suggests considering a shorter season silage corn or soybean to enable timely planting of the cereal.
• Harvest at flag-leaf to boot stage for maximum feed value. Digestible fiber and crude protein contents are highest before the crop starts to head out.  Nutritional quality declines quickly once the heads emerge, though triticale seems to retain quality a little better than rye.
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