Managing Small Grains for Forage

Small grains can be an important supplement to forage stocks.

The forage industry entered 2019 with historically low forage stocks. To make matters worse, widespread winter-kill in the spring was followed by vast areas of prevented planting. With wet conditions this past fall, many are anticipating a continued need for quality feed sources. Small grains, or cereal grains, will likely be an important supplement to forage stocks of perennial alfalfa, grass, and mixed hay, summer annual and corn silage. The most commonly used species of small grains include barley, oats, rye, triticale and wheat. Although the potential forage benefits from small grains are reasonably consistent across species, differences in quality and quantity can vary widely depending on management.

In addition to forage with relatively low input costs, small grains can provide other benefits such as traditional nurse crop protection, weed suppression, a diversified rotation, and living roots for cover cropping. Small grains are classified into two major subgroups, spring and winter. Spring small grains are seeded in the spring and will grow steadily until they reach the reproductive stage. Winter grains are seeded from late summer through fall and need to go through a period of vernalization during the winter to maximize forage production prior to the reproductive stage. Vernalization is simply a developmental transition from the vegetative to reproductive stage, caused by exposure to a period of low temperatures, which halts growth. Vernalization is often referred to as “dying back”.

With proper management, spring and winter small grains can provide a great deal of flexibility to forage production systems. Spring barley, spring oats, spring triticale and spring wheat all have a place, as do winter barley, winter triticale, winter rye, winter triticale and winter wheat. In addition to proper rates and dates, attention should be given to fertility requirements. When utilizing small grains for forage, it’s critical to consider the nutrients being removed along with the biomass.

Although most small grains can establish with minimum incorporation, seed-to-soil contact at recommended depths is highly recommended and will provide the best and most consistent forage production.

When seeded early enough in the fall to justify 60 to 90 days of production, spring oats can provide quality grazing opportunities until they are killed by cold temperatures. Since spring oats do not require vernalization to maximize growth prior to reaching the reproductive stage, they outperform fall-seeded winter small grains when used for fall grazing. With early seeding, brassicas such as radishes and turnips can be included to provide diversity and other soil health benefits.

Winter barley, winter rye, winter triticale and winter wheat can all be grazed in the fall when seeded early enough. Opportunities for early seeding include after other small grains, vegetable crops, sweet corn, early forage chopping or seed corn. The earlier winter small grains are seeded, the greater the potential for increased tillering – which can increase forage yields in spring. Care must be taken not to over graze winter small grains if additional forage is desired the following spring. Faster growing spring small grains can be seeded with winter small grains to enhance the yield of fall grazing.

Although winter small grains provide fall grazing potential, harvesting forage in the spring for hay or silage is more common. Cool season legumes such as clover and forage peas can be added in the spring to enhance protein content. Understanding the management required for each small grain type is imperative for successful forage production.

Winter Barley is more drought tolerant and has a lower water usage requirement. However, it is the most susceptible of all the winter small grains to winterkill. Therefore, consideration should be given to seeding early and avoiding late fall grazing. It is best used for fall grazing and for silage or hay at the boot to dough stage. Winter and spring barley, when used as a silage crop, is the most comparable to whole-plant corn (90 to 100%).

Winter Rye offers the most flexibility of the winter small grains. It is the easiest to establish in poor soils or with less than ideal seeding methods and easily has the greatest cold tolerance. Therefore, it is more forgiving under a wider range of conditions and especially when seeded late. Winter rye offers the greatest production of hay or grazing because of its quick growth both in fall and spring and is also a popular silage option.

Winter rye suppresses the subsequent establishment of small seeded legumes. This suppression, called an “allelopathic effect”, is a desired benefit when winter rye is used as a cover crop to suppress weeds. It is important to understand that since alfalfa is a small seeded legume, it should not be seeded directly after winter rye. When looking for a small grain with maximum forgiveness, GUARDIAN® brand Winter Rye is a great choice.

Winter Triticale is a cross between winter rye and winter wheat. It has higher forage yield than winter wheat, but lower quality. It has higher levels of digestible energy and crude protein than barley. Winter triticale can be seeded earlier in the fall because it is less susceptible to the Hessian fly, which can be problematic to small grains. Winter triticale has large stems so care must be taken when wilting hay or packing silage. It is best used for fall and spring grazing or for silage or hay at the boot to dough stage. NITROUS Winter Triticale is an excellent choice because of its improved winter hardiness, increased ergot resistance, strong fusarium resistance, outstanding yield and reduced awns, which improves palatability.

Winter Wheat has good potential for forage and is usually higher in quality than winter rye, triticale and oats, but not barley. However, winter wheat produces more dry matter than barley. It is best used for fall and spring grazing or silage at boot to dough stage, or hay at boot to milk stage.

With all small grains, hay quality is more maturity-dependent than is silage so they should be harvested at 15 to 20% moisture for best results. The most efficient time to harvest small grains for hay is at early-milk stage. This allows for the greatest balance between forage yield and quality. Forage quality would be the greatest at the late-boot stage. To speed up drying, a crimper is recommended when harvesting in late-boot stage. Hay yields often average 2 to 4 tons per acre.

For silage production, small grains should be ensiled at 62 to 68% moisture. Chop length should be set finer than when harvesting corn or forage sorghum. Small grains can yield 4 to 7 tons per acre of 35% dry matter forage in the boot stage and closer to 6 to 10 tons per acre when harvested in the late-boot stage.

Spring small grains have a shorter life cycle, and therefore can be a great option for providing quick forage. Spring small grains are generally chopped to achieve the greatest forage quality. If spring small grains are also being used as a nurse crop for alfalfa or other small seeded species, seeding rates should be lowered to lessen the potential of smothering the other species.

Spring Barley, including the variety Hayes, tillers more than spring oats and is more drought tolerant. Of the spring small grains, spring barley has the greatest forage quality and is the most tolerant of alkalinity and salinity.

Spring Oats, when seeded early and afforded adequate fertility, have long been a reliable forage source; especially varieties that are later maturing and taller in height. Newer varieties have been specifically bred and selected for greater forage production provided by taller, more robust plants with bigger leaves for greater leaf to stem ratio. KARA Spring Forage Oats have shown great promise.

Spring Triticale is an option which has a good balance between high yield and high quality. Compared to other spring small grains, it has markedly slower early growth, which is beneficial when using also as a nurse crop.

Spring Forage Peas, like LC 6040, can be mixed with spring small grains to provide high quality forage with higher protein content. Pre-mixed seed is available in carefully balanced, time-tested formulas. SILO BUSTER Peas & Oats, SILO BUSTER Peas & Barley, and SILO BUSTER Peas & Triticale are industry standards.

Small grains can be an important supplement to forage stocks of perennial alfalfa, grass and mixed hay, summer annual and corn silage. Although the potential forage benefits from small grains are reasonably consistent across species, differences in quality and quantity can vary widely depending on management. For best results, plan ahead and select the small grain that provides the maximum benefits within the overall system.