Montana Ranchers Embrace New Winter Forage
College Park, MD – Montana producers have long been eager to take advantage of viable fall-planted winter cereals. Now they are starting to plant the first state-recommended winter wheat variety that offers just what they have been looking for: a forage that can take some of the heavy labor and cost burden off spring planting while efficiently capturing precious winter and spring moisture.
The forage, Willow Creek awnless winter wheat, is now being planted on an estimated 20,000-25,000 acres in the state, according to Montana State University forage specialist Dennis Cash. That number is expected to increase as more seed becomes available.
Cash and other researchers have found that Willow Creek outperforms many spring-planted forages because it makes excellent use of the region’s minimal precipitation. It also contributes significantly to farmers’ bottom line because it requires less irrigation, is fall-planted, and allows farmers to maintain good yields when rotating out of alfalfa.
Producer George Reich sees a major benefit in the way Willow Creek maximizes available moisture because Montana is in a semi-arid region that gets about 12-15 inches of precipitation per year, most of it in the winter and spring. “It takes advantage of the rain, which we get early, so it cuts down on the irrigation bill,” says Reich, who helped lead demonstration trials on his 5,000-acre crop and livestock farm in the town of Willow Creek.
Reich’s trials were part of two grant projects SARE funded in 2004 and 2005. Together, these grant projects also supported workshops and other outreach efforts to show hundreds of growers across the state how they can successfully incorporate Willow Creek into their operation.
Cash and others demonstrated that this early exposure to rainfall helped Willow Creek outperform spring-planted cereals like barley and oats, while maintaining similar feed quality. In trials, it was yielding 2.2 to 4.1 tons of hay per acre by early July. The forage tested high for crude protein and digestibility with a low risk for nitrate toxicity. In backgrounding trials, Cash found that cattle gained 2.5 pounds per day on a high-roughage diet of Willow Creek.
Forage specialists encourage growers to take their fields out of alfalfa every five to six years in order to keep weeds and soil-borne diseases at bay. Willow Creek represents a good stand-in because it allows growers to maintain consistent forage yields, an important financial consideration. “When your hay fields go down to two tons per acre or under, if you can get three tons on forage, you’re still gaining and breaking up that cycle,” Reich says.
Because most producers interested in Willow Creek raise livestock, fall planting is a big plus for another reason—it shifts some of the workload and operating costs off springtime, when there is plenty of calving, field work and other important chores to be done. “All things being equal, that was one of the big messages that came in loud and clear,” Cash says.