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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Crop and Soil Environmental News, September 2004

The Forage Potential of Small Grains

Ray Smith, Extension Forage Specialist, CSES Dept.; Brinkley Benson, Research Associate, Hort. Dept.; Wade Thomason, Extension Grains Specialist, CSES Dept.

Cereal Grains as Forages
Cool season cereal crops form the backbone of many farm enterprises in the U.S. and Virginia is no exception. With the exception of rye though, Virginia producers make limited use of the tremendous forage potential provided by cereal crops. Following is a brief overview of the major fall planted cereal crops and how they can fit into a forage system.

Wheat is one of the most versatile small grains for a farming operation. Due to its excellent winter hardiness, wheat can be sown later in the fall than barley and is a good choice for planting following corn or soybean harvest. Wheat has good potential for pasture, silage or hay production. Wheat will withstand wetter soils than barley or oats, but tends to be less tolerant of poorly drained soils than rye and triticale. It is not used as an all-purpose forage crop to the extent that it could be. Newer winter wheat varieties with Hessian fly resistance can be seeded as early as late August and produce an abundance of excellent fall grazing. Managed properly, wheat can be grazed in the fall, again in early spring, and finally harvested for hay or silage. As silage, wheat is of excellent quality and will normally produce more tonnage (6-10 T/Ac at 65%moisture) than barley (5-8 T/Ac) and be of higher quality than rye when cut at the bloom stage. At this stage, wheat yields are often 50% higher than at the boot stage with little loss in quality. For highest silage yields, the taller wheat varieties should be considered and not seeded until early to mid-October. Another consideration in variety selection is the length and roughness of awns. Livestock tend to favor cultivars with small or no awns. Forage potential is greatly reduced when wheat is grown on soils with a pH of 5.5 or less.

Barley is generally more susceptible to winterkill than wheat, especially when it has been overgrazed. It should not be grazed as short or as late into the fall as wheat. Barley does best on fertile, well-drained soils, but is also well adapted to sandy soils. Barley is sensitive to acidic soil conditions and pH should be maintained at 5.5 or higher. Barley produces high quality silage or hay with a higher digestibility than other small grains, but lower forage yields. For best forage yields, barley should be seeded in early to mid-September and cut in the late soft dough stage. Some varieties have barbed awns, which can affect palatability in hay. Barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV), leaf rust and smut can be serious problems for winter barley. Early planting tends to favor the occurrence of BYDV. Good quality grazing can be obtained from early seeded barley.

The use of triticale as a high yielding forage crop is gaining popularity throughout the country and particularly in the Midwest. Triticale generally has a higher forage yield, but lower quality than wheat. Triticale is a cross between rye and wheat. As such, it is adapted to a range of soils and does well on sandy sites. Tolerance to low pH is better than wheat, but not as good as rye.

Rye is the most cold tolerant and least exacting in its soil and moisture requirements of all small grains. Like wheat, rye can be sown in late August to provide fall grazing, excellent winter ground cover, and spring grazing. The rapid growth of rye, both in the fall and spring, makes it the most productive of the small grains for pasture. Rye is the earliest maturing small grain for silage with good quality when harvested at the proper stage of growth (at or before the bloom stage). Traditionally, rye has been a poor choice for silage because of its higher fiber content compared to wheat, oat, barley, and triticale, and palatability declines rapidly in with maturity.

The release of several "abruzzi" types of rye (Winterking and Aroostook) has provided better varieties for grazing and silage. Recent trials indicate that these newer varieties of rye are able to maintain quality longer than triticale, but not as long as wheat. When grown for silage, rye should be seeded in early October (and until late November) and harvested in the late boot stage, wilted and ensiled. Research has shown that at this growth stage rye protein is efficiently digested in the rumen with over 75% being utilized. Rye is a more consistent producer of spring pasture than wheat, although it quickly becomes stemmy and unpalatable in late spring.

Winter Oats
As a rule, the hardiest winter oat variety (Kenoat) is considerably less winter hardy than common wheat and barley varieties. However, in the southern US, winter oats will usually survive most winters and produce high yields of forage (4-8T/Ac). Similar to barley, winter oats must be seeded in mid-September to be well established before cold weather arrives. Winter oats are best adapted to well-drained clay and sandy loam soils. They do not perform as well under extremely dry or wet conditions as wheat or rye. Winter oats produce a high quality silage; however, lower yields are common compared to the other small grains.

Small grains have good potential as a forage crop and can be used as fall and spring pasture, as silage, and as a hay crop while serving as a winter cover, nurse crop, and/or scavenger of residual fertilizer nitrogen. For more detailed production and management information contact your local county agent or go to then click Crop and Grains and then Forages.

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