It's not a good feeling to have a pen full of freshly weaned steers and find out your load of distillers grains is a supply chain casualty. While you can probably stretch the calves out for a few days with more hay, a feed shortage is a full-blown emergency for dairy producer Adam Graft.
Graft and his wife, Jane, have several thousand milk cows and replacement heifers to feed daily at Leatherbrook Dairy. Today's sky-high feed prices coupled with soaring farmland values in Georgia pushed them to think outside of the box to find some peace of mind and full silos. Their feedstuff solution is a unique form of triple-cropping.
The producers' triticale-corn-corn system takes careful orchestration and a hyper-speed approach to planting and harvesting. But Graft is convinced the fewer miles his feed has to travel these days the better. He's even had trouble getting simple soy hulls.
"If we didn't grow the second corn crop, we'd have to buy more standing corn from neighbors and haul it farther. It's probably a wash economically, but we know we have it all in the silo, and it is silage quality," he said.
CUSTOM WORK SUPPORTS THE SYSTEM
The first corn crop of the family's 2,000-acre trifecta comes on the heels of the triticale, which is harvested mid-March through mid-April. Harvesting is one chore handled in-house. The Americus-based dairyman also relies on custom crews to do things like spread broiler litter and plant. His fertilizer dealer applies lime and commercial fertilizer based on annual grid soil samples and tissue analysis. Fertilizer can also be applied through the farm's center-pivot irrigation system.
Following the triticale harvest, the planting crew applies a burndown herbicide and strip-tills in the stubble in 30-inch rows. That's usually accomplished within a week of the last truckload of triticale silage leaving the field. Graft plants a full-season variety but includes different varieties to spread the risk and maturity dates. He looks for varieties with high starch lines, making them ideal for silage.
That first corn crop is typically harvested in July, averaging yields of 20 to 25 tons per acre. A quality analysis done with a 30-hour neutral detergent fiber (NDF) test-runs in the 50th percentile.
The second corn crop is then strip-tilled in, but the planter shifts over 15 inches, so it straddles the stubble from the first crop.
"We get a better seedbed that way when we're planting into stubble," Graft said. "That also holds the soil together until the new crop comes up."
The second corn crop is harvested in October, but it doesn't yield as much, and the quality is lower than the first corn crop. It averages 12 to 15 tons per acre, and the 30-hour NDF is 50%.
"The second crop grows faster than the first, pollinates during the worst of the summer heat and matures based on heat units," Graft explained. Unfortunately, even though it yields less than the first corn crop, it's just as expensive to grow. He offsets some of the costs by reducing inputs, most notably the planting rate.
Graft drops the seeding rate on that second corn crop down to 22,000 per acre compared to 32,000 for the first corn crop. The second crop, while lower yielding, has the added advantage of being valuable for growing out his replacement heifers.
After that second corn crop, it's back to the triticale, which he said has been a product of trial and error.
"We initially used ryegrass as a winter crop," Graft explained. "But the silage was slow to dry down in the field if it rained. It matured later in the season and was very difficult to strip-till in the stubble." The root mass was difficult to deal with, too, he added, and he couldn't get a good stand of corn after ryegrass.
Before Graft settled on the three-crop program he has today, he tried wheat for three years. While he said it was easier to plant into, it didn't produce the tonnage he wanted.
The triticale provides the right balance of tonnage and quality. "It gives us enough of a window to harvest a high-quality crop. It doesn't just head out in one day. We try to start cutting it when we see just a few heads in the field."
The optimal timing of yield and quality gives him an average of 2 tons of dry matter per acre with a 30-hour NDF in the upper 50th percentile, and 17% to 18% crude protein.
DOUBLE- OR TRIPLE-CROPPING INTEREST
Graft doesn't think the climate will allow for triple-cropping much above his southwest Georgia headquarters. But, he added, from what he's seen, there is definitely potential for more double-cropping.
He points to Brazil as an example of how double-cropping is being used to boost grain production. Total acres in Brazil used for grain production is some 124 million, while total planted is 189 million acres. That additional 65 million acres is coming from double- or triple-cropping. In the U.S., on the other hand, only about 8.7 million acres are double-cropped, 2% of total grain acres.
Joana Colussi, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, is a native of Brazil. She said the typical double-crop setup in the more temperate central regions is soybeans in the warmer months followed by corn in the cooler season.
"They (Brazilian farmers) don't have a real winter, but it is dry in part of the season, so that makes the second crop risky," she explained. "In the south of Brazil, with a cooler climate, corn in the summer is followed by wheat in the region's crop rotation."
In areas where triple-cropping is possible, the third crop is often pasture, black beans, cover crops or specialty crops. She said that even with the risks, there are payoffs from more than one crop.
"It lowers production costs because you can use some of the same equipment on both crops," Colussi said. "There is additional revenue and another crop to sell at a different time."
No surprise here, but Graft admitted triple-cropping can get hectic. Everything has to go just right. But, for his operation, it's worth it.
"It keeps all the bellies full," he said of the cattle. "It doesn't seem like you're utilizing your assets if you're not growing a crop when you can."
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