A number of producers tout how the benefits of cover crops can be found in the soil directly underfoot, and, some months down the road, in their wallets. Though that knowledge doesn’t always help to justify a non-harvested crop that takes time, energy and cash to plant. One livestock operation in southern Ohio is using a versatile cover crop that benefits them multiple, more immediate, ways.
Bolender Farms in Brown County, an Angus operation, has started to see some more visible evidence of cover crop effectiveness after using a plant that’s been gaining popularity in recent years for its double-duty value. Triticale is a wheat and rye hybrid known to combine the productivity of wheat with the hardiness and short-season abilities of rye.
“Between me and my wife and my dad and my uncle, we run about 95 angus brood cows,” said Adam Bolender. “The triticale works out nicely because we can, one, have a cover crop that’s grown all winter, two, take the forage off to feed the cattle in the winter, and then three, still be able to get a bean crop or a corn crop, whatever your choosing would be, planted in a timely manner — usually by the last week of May.”
The Bolender family implemented the forage for the first time this year after noting the success with triticale family friend Ben Parker had on his operation.
“We’ve been doing it now for four years, more or less using it as a way to maximize our profits on the farm where we’re coming in raising soybeans,” Parker said. “But we also are mainly a beef operation so we use that to not only supply us with a crop to sell on the market, but we can still feed our cattle and also get the benefits of the cover crop.”
After mowing and baling, the rounds are tube wrapped to retain the moisture, Parker and the Bolenders said “is like candy” to the cattle. The whole process is quick.
“We cut Sunday and were baling by Monday at 11,” Adam said.
As with any forage, moisture does play a big role. They like to hit it at 50%, trying to avoid being too dry. Some say “too wet” is a good thing for feed value, though bacterial activity remains a concern throughout. To help minimize spoilage, two dry bales are placed at the ends of each tube to keep it airtight until it’s fed.
Economically, Adam said they’ve found it pricier than cereal rye, but they have been pretty happy with this year’s return on investment. The mild winter allowed an average of 16 4- by 5-foot round bales per acre on the 10 acres they planted to triticale. They were expecting about 12 bales per acre, though they admitted it could’ve gone a couple weeks earlier if it wasn’t for the off and on rains this spring.
One of the great values of triticale is its relatively short growing season. They were able to go in after harvest to plant the crop and bale it right before planting. Their aim is to seed it the first week of October with it coming out in early- to mid-May.
Bolender said its benefits have fit well into their rotation.
“The rotation, we’ll usually have a corn crop, a bean crop, then some form of cover crop — this year it was triticale — and then we’ll go back to beans again then probably corn the next year,” he said. “The main thing is to always keep something growing, building activity in your soil, and we really like it because of the forage aspect of it.”
It also offers weed control benefits in the following crop.
“I’ll probably leave the 2-4D out this year,” Adam said. “We usually give it a week before we go back and spray it. I really don’t take any chances on it. I use the same bean burndown just because I don’t want to have marestail. It’s not out there now, but it’s been such a problem it can still come.”
Soil conservation and care is high on the farm’s priorities. Aubrey Bolender is on the Brown County Soil and Water Conservation Board. She said triticale, since it is baled instead of decomposing back to the soil, is not as effective in nutrient retention as a single-duty cover crop might be.
“When a typical cover crop is left for burndown, it’ll slow release any of the nutrients being held up in the plant,” she said. “Whereas when you’re baling it, you’re taking all of those stored nutrients out of the field, so then we’ve got to put it back in the form of granular fertilizer or sometimes manure.”
Though nutrients are removed from the field, triticale’s offerings in feed form are important to the beef operation. Parker said feed value is mostly the same when compared to similar options, though there’s more quantity with triticale.
“We do put out rye, we put out wheat, and we put out triticale. More or less, it is the tonnage factor of the triticale. The feed value for what we’ve tested and what we’ve seen, and then what I’ve seen in studies, is relatively the same,” Parker said.
According to a study from the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota, an analysis of forage and diet composition of dry matter shows triticale’s crude protein at 17.5%, compared to alfalfa’s 22.6% and oat’s 14.2%. Triticale had notably higher phosphorous numbers at .56 versus alfalfa’s .43 and oats’ .39.
Triticale can also be planted as a supplemental forage option when pasture or hay conditions have been challenging. Mark Sulc, Ohio State University Extension forage specialist, said triticale planted in early August is a strong option for fast production of high quality late season forage. Triticale can produce good dry matter yields within 60 to 80 days after planting. When planted the first two weeks of August and with adequate rainfall, spring triticale can produce from 2,500 to 5,000 pounds per acre of dry matter by mid-October.
“The lower yields occur when leaf rust becomes a problem, which is a possibility in a damp year like we’ve had so far,” Sulc said. “They will reach the boot stage of growth in October, which provides the best compromise of yield and forage quality.”
A November harvest of early August triticale plantings will be in the heading stage and will yield 6,000 pounds of dry matter per acre or more crude protein content of 12% to 15% and neutral detergent fiber of 38% to 50% depending on planting date and stage at harvest, Sulc said.
So far, triticale has been used on the Parker and Bolender farms primarily for the benefits as a cattle feed, but they aren’t against expansion into other cover crops down the road.
“From what we’ve done as far as the cover crop, we’ve done it to where we can bale it. As far as doing cereal rye or anything like that on crop ground, we haven’t done much of that. Mainly we’re doing it to take care of the land and get the most bang for our buck,” Adam said. “We’re not 50% or 100% cover crop on all of our ground. We would like to be, but I think time would probably be the biggest thing holding us back. I really don’t think of it as an extra cost because I do feel like you would get that back from the benefits, like Aubrey said, building your organic matter.”
For now, though, at least the initial work with triticale on the Bolender farm shows promise as a practice for profitability and environmental stewardship in the future.