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Plant Triticale

Cut Hay Bills, Boost Lamb Profits

By Nathan Griffith & Helmut Lang

Photos by Helmut Lang

Last year about this time we wrote about how a good crop of rye can give 10 to 14 days of early pasturage before the grass comes on. Our good friend and careful shepherd, Helmut Lang of British Columbia soon after that wrote to comment on how much better success he had been having with triticale, than with rye.

What Is It?

Triticale is a crossbred crop made by pollinating durum wheat with rye pollen. This particular combination can result in a grain that breeds true. Which is to say it doesn’t veer towards becoming more like wheat, or more like rye, even after successive generations of replanting.

Triticale may be ready to graze five weeks after planting. This crop is ready to graze again after just two and a half weeks!
Triticale may be ready to graze five weeks after planting. This crop is ready to graze again after just two and a half weeks!

In other words, it really is a “new species,” because it never reverts back to either rye or wheat. Of course, wheat and rye naturally cross this way under field conditions from time to time, so the cross isn’t a “genetically modified” crop in the modern sense of that term.

Most crosses of wheat/rye are either infertile, or are inferior in other ways. In fact, some of us remember a big hubbub about triticale some decades ago, and all the hype about how it would make us all rich.

Growers soon found the claims to be exaggerated, and the crop seemed to have many problems. Now that those troubles have been bred out, varieties have been adapted to places all around the globe-literally hundreds of varieties now, and more coming along all the time.

Incidentally, the common pronunciation of triticale is “tritti-kaylee.” The name comes from the combinations of the genus name for wheat-triticum-and the species name for rye-secale.

What Good Is It?

As a small-grain forage crop, Mr. Lang tells me it has no equal. He says, “It is sweet as sugar and palatable as salad. You would like it with some good olive oil! But not so with rye, and as silage, the sheep hate rye and love triticale: What a difference!”

In addition to its palatability, it produces a grain that was superior to barley and maize (corn) for pigs and poultry in trials in Australia, with higher protein content, protein of better quality, and it just tastes better to them.

Last year's triticale.
Last year’s triticale.

Western U.S. dairy farmers have observed that it has about the same results as high quality alfalfa when fed to high-producing dairy cows. It’s likely the same effect would be observed in dairy sheep and goats.

In addition, triticale shows high yields on acid soils, exceeding that of wheat in Poland, Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, and other places. It usually has 20%-30% higher yields than wheat.

Triticale also outperformed other small grains on highly alkaline and limestone soils, as well as those deficient in copper, manganese or zinc.

In drought conditions is really shines, having often produced twice the biomass of wheat in central Brazil’s savanna region.

Triticale is resistant to many things that plague other small-grain crops, such as heat streak mosaic virus, and wheat curl mite. It is more tolerant to Russian wheat aphids, Hessian fly, leaf rust and powdery mildew, smuts, bunts and other fungus problems.

One thing it doesn’t have is the seed dormancy and growth traits that sometimes make rye a weed in succeeding crops. It’s taller than other grains except rye, so its volunteers are easy to spot in a field.

Though it grows better than other small grains on infertile ground, it has a very high response to fertilizer applications. Some studies show yields still increased after a total of 240 lbs. of nitrogen per acre was applied in three spreadings-prior to fall planting, then in February, and finally in May.

Triticale shortens the hay-feeding season.
Triticale shortens the hay-feeding season.

Helmut Lang’s experience is that because of the crop’s rapid, heavy growth, stocking rates can be higher than on common pastures. In fact, land planted to triticale will support “one and a half times more than grass,” he says.

Triticale seed grain is being used in some parts of the world as a human-diet wheat substitute, with packaged bread pre-mixes for bread machines now being offered as a new option. It is higher in fiber than wheat, and has a distinctive nutty taste.

How & When To Plant

A number of authorities say the time to plant can range from late summer until well after the first frost. But the Southern Plains growers, and some in the Pacific Northwest often plant full-season, winter-grazing varieties by mid-August. Normal recommended planting times in those regions are from late August/early September. Adapted varieties can be planted right up until December.

Early planting is wise when the triticale is to be grazed in the fall. Much later than mid-September will diminish the yield of forage somewhat.

Here in West Virginia, it can be planted successfully (and survive the winter) right up until about November 15, but that would be for spring crops only. Planted here after about October 15, it is practically useless even as a winter cover crop, although it will live through the winter.

Mr. Lang has had good results in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia waiting a little before planting. He says, “Best time to plant is after the first frost, or until mid-October in our climate. It is hardy, able to take frost. If seeded after frost as winter triticale, it doesn’t “head out” and lives over the winter. This will provide a huge production in early spring!”

Mr. Lang says that summer planted triticale will begin sending up seed heads even without having had any frost on it. He says, “It’s important when grazing to never let it head out…never let it go too high, as when heads come out, this is the end. As long as the heads are not developed, it grows.”

This rich field of triticale was not fertile, and not harrowed, so weeds grew in it.
This rich field of triticale was not fertile, and not harrowed, so weeds grew in it.

Mr. Lang also reported that if anyone wants to harvest the grain from triticale, it should be grazed down twice, otherwise it gets too high and then falls over-a very important point with many grains. This “falling down,” (lodging) usually spoils the grain, and the leaves likewise get moist, and become easily putrefied.

Avoid large-headed varieties too, in areas where high winds are prevalent (if you’re growing for grain) because the large heads are more likely to break off.

As for how much seed to plant, one must plant somewhat more than for wheat or barley, because the grains are bigger-meaning fewer kernels per pound. Also, if seeding into standing corn or other field crops prior to harvest, it is wise to add about 20% to 50% more to compensate for poorer stand establishment under those conditions.

How much to sow? Most experts agree that 80 to 120 lbs. should be drilled, or 20-40 lbs. extra (25%), if broadcast. And remember to set the drill’s seed openings a bit larger than for other small grains, to account for the larger size kernels.

It’s better to use certified seed, to help avoid sowing the weed seeds that are often found in feed-grade triticale, and because feed grade kernels may not sprout. Feed-grade triticale may have been kept under humid conditions, which even if it doesn’t actually rot the seeds, invariably ends up killing a lot of them. That’s true for almost all garden and field crop seeds.

In turf, it’s better to plow under the vegetable matter, and then harrow before and after seeding with the triticale. Some recommend finishing with a cultipacker, to discourage birds from getting the seeds. In already cultivated ground, just lightly harrow before and after-no need to plow, says Helmut Lang.

He says, “There are lots of ways to do it; in good soil I just spread it with the spreader and go with a Danish spring harrow over it. If it rains a day after spreading, no harrow is needed. In compact soil it has to be seeded one cm (about 1/2 inch) deep, and also in areas where it is very dry. I don’t use any fertilizer anymore, as we are now organic inspected. But normally you graze it twice and then add a heavy load of nitrogen, as for grain.”

Some other rules of thumb for seeding are:

  • Make sure you get a variety adapted to your region-triticale is very parochial in growth habits.
  • In low rainfall areas (10 to 14 inches) aim for 130 to 150 plants/square yard, or drill 85-95 lbs. of seed/acre.
  • In modest rainfall areas (14-18 inches) aim for 150 to 170 plants/square yard, or drill 95-105 lbs. of seed/acre.
  • In medium rainfall areas (18 to 22 inches) aim for 170 to 185 plants per plants/square yard, or drill 105 to 115 lbs. of seed/acre.
  • Higher seeding rates will increase fall forage production, but the grain will probably lodge if not grazed.
  • Because triticale forage yields are so much higher than wheat, soil nutrient needs also are higher if you want the biggest bang for the buck. Still, triticale will make at least some crop where wheat would be shut out. Triticale is more efficient at getting what’s to be had in any soil.

Grazing The Crop

It takes from 35 to 50 days after the crop sprouts before it’s ready to graze. It will be about 9 to 12 inches tall at that time. Mr. Lang says be ready to graze it “five weeks after seeding-it depends a lot on rain!”

If you’re using a full-season, winter forage-type triticale, you may be surprised at the much larger volume and longer season than for wheat-grazing. Though they have a good safety record, it’s not a bad idea to test for nitrates, etc., as one might do with any small-grain forage crop.

Mr. Lang reminds us that it’s important to stay on top of it. “Keep it down, graze it for a week, wait two and a half weeks, and bring the flock back.”

He further recommends, “If someone likes to harvest the grain, it has to be grazed down twice, otherwise it gets too high and falls down-very important! The dairy people looked at what we did and took over: Silage and hay! He adds that in his experience there are no pests that ruin triticale, and that in comparison to turnips or dwarf Essex rape it has more massive production, better flavored meat, and “less, less work.” Plus, it’s a hardier crop.

Other Important Points

Experts suggest that if you can’t find varieties that have done well in your area, you should try several kinds in small areas on your place this year, a few square rods (or even a few square yards!) being enough to learn what’s best for you.

Give them each the same treatment, and see which one yields the most. Next year you’ll be glad for the small inconvenience today.

Thistles ready to flower. Before...
Thistles ready to flower. Before…

...and after the Africans grazed!
…and after the Africans grazed!

Helmut Lang says to remember that since triticale has up to 23% protein on the dry-matter basis, it makes the sheep want to eat some straw along with it. He says, “They don’t need it the first day of grazing, but with time they love rough feed…and they are nuts for trees-whatever kind of sheep breed. So I cut big cedars and firs and let them eat the bark and twigs. That way they are parasite free.

In the photo on the previous page (“Last year’s triticale”) Mr. Lang shows a view of the second year in a row of a triticale forage crop on the same piece of land.

He says, “For soil preparation, I went with a cheap spring harrow before and after seeding. There is very little weed growth…and the big plus: Weeds are gone and the field is ready for alfalfa seeding. If enough manure is left over from winter-feeding the sheep on the ground, no weed has a chance to come up. That is, if the field was harrowed before seeding. This kind of feed is good for all kinds of sheep.”

Watch out for weeds. Mr. Lang says of the view below there was a lot of lamb’s quarter and other weeds. He observed that when he grazed Katahdin, Caribbean and “other woolies,” the sheep would “pick out the triticale and it was a mess afterwards, in autumn-weeds and thistles everywhere.”

  He points out that with the African Tribal sheep, that isn’t a problem, because of their “true non-selective eating” traits. “They take whatever comes, and eat clean. Now I think I get more out of the mixed fields: The Africans love the wheat and the thistles are eaten right into the roots.” He recalls that this field got no fertilizer: “If nitrogen is brought out, weeds have no chance-the triticale takes over.”

With less spent for hay, better growth of the lambs, and better flavored meat, it all adds up to better returns next year for wise flock masters who plant triticale in September and October!

Canadian Helmut Lang raises African Tribal sheep-famous for their parasite and predator resistance, cold and heat hardiness, low-labor, no-shearing, and comprehensive-grazing. Write, call or e-mail: Helmut Lang, Mabel Lake Road 2041, Lumby, BC Canada VOE-2G6; Phone: 250 547 6253; Fax: 250 547 6915; hlang@junction.net

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