Researchers evaluate popular forage grain blends

Feb 19, 2010
by WLJ
Growers who plant forage grain blends now have data to back their seed selection decisions. As the planting of annual grain blends for forage production increases in the Northwest, so does the need to rethink how we select the seed for blends.

Steve Fransen, Washington State University forage agronomist, sees most blend selections made by growers and seed outlets as less than scientific. “More often, the motivation behind seed selection is cost or availability,” he says. “Even those looking for something more out of a blend are usually just hoping and guessing.” Fransen fails to see the logic behind such an approach. “A farmer’s lowest cost input item is his seed. At the same time, it is literally the foundation of any production system,” he says. “Why someone would gamble hard work and expense on an unknown is beyond me.” One group of seed specialists is trying to change how growers and suppliers select for their forage annual blends by providing them with the research-based data they need to make informed decisions. Over the last three years, Connell Grain Growers, working with Progene Plant Research of Othello, WA, have grown several combinations of commercially available forage oats and triticale, under research trial conditions, in order to identify compatible cultivars. “From just looking at the plots, the difference between mixes was really noticeable.” says Dave Beach of Connell Grain Growers. “Some obviously weren’t meant to grow together and others were.”

Best blends identified

He recalls one combination in particular, Everleaf Oat 126 and Merlin Triticale, as performing exceptionally well as a blend. “They are both real strong varieties in their own right,” says Beach. “But they seemed to always keep up with each other. Neither appeared dominant.”

One aspect of compatibility that was clearly evident to Beach was how well Everleaf 126 Oat and the Merlin Triticale shared a common space so that both plants could benefit from maximum levels of sunlight. He recalls each variety filling in any gaps left by the other so that next to no light penetrated the interwoven leaves to the ground below. Kurt Braunwort of PPR adds, “What we learned from the two years of data was that the EverLeaf 126 oat/Trical Merlin triticale blend was visibly compatible and the others were not,” he recalls. “Both years, the 126/ Merlin blend had the best quality (protein) of any blend and better quality than either 126 oats or Merlin triticale by themselves.” He notes that the data also showed that the test plot with that blend did produce less overall tonnage than the test plots representing each of its components individually but, he points out, that discrepancy may be due to timing rather than an inerrant production weakness in the 126/Merlin blend. “There is evidence in the data suggesting that harvesting the blend three days later may have produced best quality with best yield,” says Braunwart. “This is what we will be checking in our 2010 research trial.”

Research long overdue

For Fransen, this sort of research is necessary if forage producers hope to optimize their production and reduce their financial risks. “Once you know exactly how individual varieties and genotypes perform, then we can start putting them together in a systematic way,” he says. “Otherwise, the grower is playing a guessing game.” He cautions that there is risk in mixing cultivars without knowing ahead of time if the agronomic components of each grain are compatible with the others in the blend. He points out that the wrong combination of plants can turn what could be a win-win into a lose-lose. “For instance, if you are planning to cut a stand for hay or silage, you want all the cultivars in your blend to advance in maturity at the same rate,” says Fransen, “so when you harvest, all plants are close to the same stage of development at the same time.” Fransen adds that when grains in a blend have widely differing rates of maturity, a grower is forced to choose between compromised production on one cultivar, by harvesting it before its yield potential is fully realized, or quality on the other cultivar, by harvesting later when its nutritional value is already declining. Either way, the grower loses, says Fransen. Other problems that arise from poor blend choices can range from a competitiveness imbalance within the mix to visual appeal issues in the stand.

Special blends for special jobs

For those blends that are backed by solid research, Fransen sees two particularly relevant forage production applications. “Many times, individual varieties in a blend will grow at different rates,” he says, adding that some will germinate and develop rapidly while others will hold back for a growth spurt later in the season. He notes that these blend characteristics already have been used successfully to manipulate and often extend the growing season on forage stands. Another application of blends that shows a great deal of promise, says Fransen, is the positive role they can play in nutrient uptake and nutritional balancing. This is particularly relevant to dairy operators who are not only charged with producing forage for their cows but also managing the nutrient rich manure their animals produce. “If you look at the nutrient status tables on grains or annual legumes, you will see that each plant has a different concentration of nutrients in its stems and leaves,” says Fransen. By blending the appropriate cultivars, it is possible not only to fine tune the nutritional balance of the forage being fed to cows, but also to balance the level of nutrients being extracted from the manureapplied fields. — WLJ

Side-by-side comparison, Everleaf Oat 126 and Merlin Triticale blend versus triticale only.

Kurt Braunwort with Everleaf Oat 126 and Merlin Triticale blend.