Cover crops range from cereal rye to forage radishes to peas, and each offers varying benefits to soil health. These crops are typically planted in the fall. Rye, barley and wheat will overwinter and continue growing in the spring. Other crops will only grow during the fall season and die off in winter. Benefits include: scavenging excess nutrients that could otherwise be lost to runoff or leeching, aeration of compacted soils (forage radishes), spring weed control with overwintering species, and all of them help to prevent soil erosion by covering the soil surface and putting down roots.
As a true cover crop, these are intended to be left in the field as either green manure or a surface mulch before planting the next crop. They are not harvested or grazed (though you can certainly do either and still receive many benefits from these crops) as that then makes them an additional harvested crop whether by machine or by livestock.
With the shortage and increasing price of quality hay and an increase in straw prices as well, spring of 2020 may be a season to harvest our winter cereal crops as either hay or straw, depending on your needs. Recent auction reports have hay averaging over $200/T (up to $350 in one report) and straw averaging $150/T. Those prices may be out of range for some livestock owners considering the uncertain economic issues surrounding our current events.
Jason Hartschuh, Crawford County Extension educator, and Stan Smith, Fairfield County, Pennsylvania, discuss some options in their article Grass Cover Crops; Bargain Feed or Bedding? First, they discuss some characteristics of each.
Rye is the fastest maturing and typically produces the highest tonnage as either straw or forage. Wheat matures a little later and offers a longer window for harvest as a forage crop than rye. Barley produces the least tonnage but has higher digestibility than rye or wheat as a forage. Triticale is a wheat/rye hybrid that performs somewhere in between the two. Expect between 1.5-3T/acre when harvesting these grains as forage.
Rye, Triticale and barley all should be cut in the boot stage (seed head not yet visible) if harvesting as a forage. After that, the palatability and nutritional values begin to plummet. Wheat increases its yield about 50% between boot and bloom stage while maintaining relatively good feed value. If you have the equipment, grazing these crops could be another great management strategy.
For straw, two options occur at heading stage of the grain. First, the crop can be terminated with a glyphosate product and can then be cut after it dries down standing. This option is ideal during a very wet spring where drying days are limited. It can often be raked and baled the day after mowing. The other option is to simply mow the crop at the heading stage in wide windrows and ted it once or twice before raking and baling. This option can work but takes more days to dry if the soil remains wet or nearly impossible if there are multiple rain events each week.
Applying 40-50 units of nitrogen in the spring to one of these crops will likely increase yield, though rye is prone to lodge with an application of fertilizer.
I’ll add a note from experience here: full-length rye or other long grasses tend to wrap around the tedder rather than simply lift and flip like it’s supposed to. That can make quite a mess and takes a long time to unwrap (nearly as bad as unplugging corn stalks from between moldboards!) Adding the nitrogen might get you a little more yield in straw or hay, but longer pieces can cause issues later down the road. At baling, a rotary cut round baler might be a good option for either hay or straw.
Lastly, some thoughts on small grain baleage from a seminar by Dr. Jimmy Henning. As with any hay crop, avoiding rain damage and timely cutting will set you up for success. As the seed bed for small grains is not typically worked as smoothly as for hay seedings, keeping soil out of the hay can be a challenge while raking. It may be beneficial to avoid aggressive raking as ash content >11 reduces palatability, increases risk of botulism, and limits livestock feed intake. Cereal grass forages also take longer to dry than alfalfa or a common hay mix. Hay should be between 45-60% moisture when baled and then immediately wrapped for highest quality and storage life.