Alternative rotation for less-than-ideally drained soils


By Tom Kilcer, regional crop and soils specialist,
Cornell Cooperative Extension


    Nearly every farm has fields that are less than ideally drained. Some farms switched these fields to reed canary grass with high nitrogen (N) applications. But this system has become uneconomical as N prices nearly tripled over the past five years.
    Another option is to interseed winter forage triticale with red clover, rotated with corn, brown midrib (BMR) sorghum-sudan or teff.
    This is not a perfect crop system but it can boost yields on less-than-ideal soils without breaking the bank trying to buy N fertilizer.


Cornell Cooperative Extension in Rensselaer County has been testing alternative crop rotations specifically for these soil types.  The objectives were to:

• produce high yields of high quality dairy forage;

• work the soil minimally to reduce picking stones, while staying off wet soils in early spring and fall;

• rotate crops between grass and broadleaf species to reduce buildup of disease and insects;

• use a legume in the rotation to replace purchased N and supply the grass component of the rotation. 

An alternative rotation
    After a summer annual such as corn is harvested in early September, minimum till or aerate the soil, then plant winter forage triticale (a cross between wheat and rye) with a conventional drill or a no-till drill.
    In late February or March, when the ground is frozen, broadcast a good variety of medium red clover at 8 pounds of seed per acre into the stand along with about 75 pounds of N. The N feeds early rapid growth of the winter triticale. The frost-seeded clover will come up under the triticale. 
    Harvest the triticale as high quality forage at flag leaf stage (where the flag leaf shows but NO head is showing). This is about May 18 to 23 in lower Rensselaer County, the same time that intensively managed reed canary grass is ready for harvest.
   Following triticale harvest, with normal rainfall, expect two cuttings of  high quality, high yielding clover. Seeding year clover at Cornell’s trials typically yields 2.2 tons of dry matter (DM) per acre.


            For the second year of clover expect 3 to 4 cuttings with yields equal or exceeding the peak years of an alfalfa stand. In Cornell yield trials, second-year clover yielded 4.5 to 5.5 tons DM per acre. By the third year, native grubs will have built up in the clover stand, destroying most of the root system.  You will get a good first cut but the stand will rapidly disappear.

 At this point there are three options to choose from:
    1.  No-till plant a very short season Roundup Ready (RR) corn. Keep in mind that on most fields the first cutting will yield 1.5 to 2 tons of DM even on a runout stand.  This boosts the first year DM per acre to 5.75 to 6.25 tons; or more than 16 to 18 tons of corn silage equivalent. 
   2. No-till BMR sorghum-sudan. No-tilling eliminates most of the stone problems.  It works best with round bale wrapping systems, although it takes a higher level of management and attention to details, thus it is not a crop for everyone.
    3. Apply Roundup and no-till plant teff.  Originally from Ethiopia, teff is a fine-leaved plant that, in a two-cut system, has consistently yielded 3 to 4 tons of DM per acre with only 50 pounds of N per cutting.  It excels in dry weather and makes very high quality hay.  Normally there are two cuttings from this rapidly growing crop.  If no manure is used, it would be excellent feed for dry cows.
 Each of these three choices comes off for the final harvest at the beginning of September and the cycle starts over with a planting of winter forage triticale.


 Problems, Pitfalls, and Possibilities
   Each step has issues that you need to manage for this system to succeed.


    Triticale.  Triticale MUST be in the ground by Sept. 25, earlier in colder areas, and out of the ground by the end of September to protect soil during the winter and establish yield potential for the next spring.  Our research showed that planting later with a higher seeding rate only wasted seed and still had major yield penalties the next spring.     

 The crop MUST be drilled in 1 to 1.25 inches deep.  Broadcast and harrowed-in, it leads to very poor yields and sometimes complete winter kill. Winter triticale is planted at 125 lbs. of seed per acre.  A corn starter supplying 20 pounds of N plus phosphorous and potash if needed will get the crop off to a good start.
  Heavy manure applications before planting supplies too much N, which produces excessive growth susceptible to being killed by winter diseases.  N needs to be applied in the spring. We have been very successful frost seeding both clover and N.  Both are incorporated by the same freezing-thawing system.
 The biggest problem with frost-seeding both clover and N is to remember to do it in late February or early March.  But if you miss the window, you can still put both on after the frost is out.


• Keep an eye on the triticale stand as the flag leaf stage can sneak up on you.  It is ready the same time as intensive managed grass and can go into the same silo.

 The mower should be set with NO shields in the back allowing the tall forage to fly out the back with minimal bunching.  Yields are heavy so if you use a conditioning mower, slow it down to allow the heavier crop to feed through.  Wide-swathed triticale can be ensiled the same day it is mowed, preserving the high sugars the crop naturally contains.  While conditioning does not help the crop to dry, tedding after 1 to 3 hours of drying lifts and loosens the heavy swaths for rapid drydown and same day chopping.
   Forage quality is 4,000 to 4,200 potential pounds of milk per ton of DM, compared to 3,700 to 4,000 potential pounds of milk/ton of DM for high quality corn silage. Triticale still tests high even during wet harvest. Like reeds, triticale has an excellent root system that pumps out a tremendous amount of water, drying the ground and allowing for harvest while minimizing the chance for rutting the field.
    Clover. For haylage, clover has an undeserved reputation as a crop that never dries.   First cut clover starting at the same moisture as alfalfa and mowed wide swath and NOT conditioned dried at the same rate as alfalfa, until about 70% moisture. Tedding clover an hour or two after mowing will move its upper leaves to expose lower levels to sunlight, rapidly drying the crop. But even without tedding, the clover was still ready to chop the same day, only slightly behind the alfalfa.
    One little-known advantage is that the protein in clover is protected, not broken down as with alfalfa. It remains in true protein form which is much more usable by the dairy cow.
   Improved new varieties are much higher yielding than common medium red clover.  No clover will last past the beginning of the third year due to the native grubs that decimate the root systems of clover.

   Short season RR corn. We mean LESS than 80-day corn.   Because short season corn shortens the vegetative stage, plant at 36,000 to 38,000 plants per acre.  A seed protection treatment is highly recommended. After the corn emerges (3 to 4 inches) apply Roundup for season-long weed control. You can also try traditional plowing but at much greater time and fuel cost.


Only 30 pounds of N is needed in the starter for sod fields.


BMR sorghum-sudan. Kill the sod first to starve clover-eating grubs during the summer and then no-till BMR sorghum-sudan directly into the sod. Round bale wrapping, especially with processing, makes tight, solid bales with excellent fermentation characteristics.  Sorghum-sudan responds to conditioning for the heavy stems.  As with the above crops, a tedding after a couple of hours of drying also works well. 


Teff. Teff is a new crop with a C4 photosynthesis like corn and sorghum.  It starts to head about knee high, but the very thick stands produce tremendous yields.  Normally there are two cuttings in a season.  The forage can be dry hay baled, chopped or round bale ensiled. But do NOT mow it to close to the ground on the first harvest.  Regrowth is from leaf tissue. The higher you cut, the faster it regrows. 
   Soil: Most of the wet soils for this rotation have been moldboard plowed when they were too wet sometime in the past 50 years.  The only way to remove the root-limiting pan still there is to deep till.  Then use plant no-till or use the new aerated tillage cropping for  excellent seed beds, good stands and good yields, without having to plow these delicate soils.


Based on research trials, we can estimate this rotation’s production:


•The triticale and clover will yield 4.45 tons of DM in the seeding year.

• The straight clover will yield 4.5 to 5.5 tons of DM in year two. 

• The first cutting of clover haylage and the yield of the short season corn or BMR or teff will yield 7 tons of DM.

This average of 5.5 tons of DM for the rotation is far above the poor yields many farmers tolerate from wet fields.  A bigger factor is that the DM harvested is as good as or better than that of many well drained fields.

 Contact Tom Kilcer at 518-272-4210. Email Or go to this website