In the north-central and northeastern U.S., this growing season is shaping up more and more as one where we go from winter to summer in less than a week: snow one day, short-sleeved shirts two days later.
Just last week, I saw a forecast that called for colder and wetter conditions than normal this month. Now, that forecast has been changed to hot and dry.
The big irony is that by the middle of this month, we should probably be at around average growing degree days. This will mean that the manure that couldn’t get spread because it was too wet, the corn that couldn’t get planted because it was too cold and wet, and the winter forage and haylage that was growing very slowly will all switch to “need to be done now!”
In terms of profitability, if you had to prioritize all these, winter forage and haylage are most important right now. When they are ready, there is nothing more important, or will have a bigger effect on the profitability of your production, than getting haylage in. The profitability drop can be measured in days.
Winter forage is ready first and drops the fastest. When high temperatures are forecast, you need to be ready as soon as the sun is out. When normal temperatures are forecast, it goes from stage 8 to optimum stage 9 in about a week.
If you have lots of acres, a “normal” planting season will spread the maturity. Remember that for every week that you delayed planting last fall, the crop will reach maturity about two days later. Thus, harvesting your fields in the order that you planted will allow you to get it all in as top quality.
If you get very high temperatures (above 90 degrees F), this will drive all the winter grains to a rapid heading. Thus, you may need to start harvesting at stage 8 on some fields so that the last fields you harvest will not be much past stage 9 if you want quality forage.
If nights remain cold, you could still harvest at early head and have high quality. But each location needs to be judged individually.
If you are trying to get haylage done in order to get manure injected and corn planted, we strongly suggest you use the wide swath same-day haylage practice. This improves the quality of forage reaching the cow’s mouth while simultaneously giving you more days of nice weather to speed the crop harvest.
As mentioned before, as soon as the winter forage is harvested, it is time to start harvesting the intensively managed straight grass fields. Alfalfa fields are next, starting with those that have the highest percentage of grass and finishing with straight alfalfa.
The neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFd) for alfalfa drops 1% each day (grass drops faster) when you go past optimum harvest. That represents 0.55 pounds of milk per cow per day. Every day you delay, you lose money.
Not so with corn silage. The corn may be a bigger crop and more important in your mind, but a delay in planting in order to get quality haylage has very little effect on the quality and quantity of corn silage. The rest of the season is a major driver of quality.
As you can see by the graph below from Joe Lauer, professor of agronomy at University of Wisconsin-Madison, you can go well into late May and still get nearly all the yield possible from corn silage.
Even planting in early June some years did not reduce corn silage yields. This was also true for the grain content.
His data is especially critical this year because so much of the early season has not been conducive to growing corn. Waiting until the soil is at the correct friability to plant, even with a significant delay, will produce a higher-yielding crop with higher grain than one that has been planted in less-than-optimal conditions.
When it is time to harvest your haylage or winter forage, there is no other cropping practice on the farm that will give you as much profit as getting it in on time. The corn can wait.
Kilcer is a certified crop adviser in Rutledge, Tenn., formerly of Kinderhook, N.Y.