12-point check for small grain forages
Producers used to only plant small grains in the spring for forage when they faced alfalfa winterkill or needed a companion crop for alfalfa seedings.
Times have changed and small grain forages are now commonly and diversely used to augment a wide array of forage needs. In addition, small grain forages are now planted in the spring, mid to late summer, and fall to facilitate manure applications and or double-cropping systems. With the planting and harvest of small grain forages approaching, here is a checklist of small grain forage issues to consider:
- Forage yield of spring-planted small grains is affected by species planted, variety selection, seeding date and time of harvest.
- Oat varieties can have highly variable forage yields. Forage-only oat varieties, such as Forage Plus, may yield twice as much as early-maturity oat varieties.
- Spring-seeded Forage Plus oats mature two weeks later than other standard oat varieties.
- If high-quality forage is needed quickly, plant early-maturity oats under-seeded with alfalfa. If you harvest the oats early, you have a good chance of getting one or two cuttings of alfalfa.
- For quality lactating dairy cow forage, harvest small grain forages in the boot stage. For dry cow and heifer forage, harvest in the early-mid head stage. Small grain forages harvested in the boot stage can be chopped longer, but chop length will need to be reduced with advancing maturity to facilitate silo packing. Mature, hollow-stemmed forages tend to resist packing.
- Small grain forages can mature very quickly. When in doubt, harvest earlier rather than later.
- Small grain forages tend to blow down in severe thunderstorms or rain, which can greatly increase the ash content and or fermentation characteristics.
- With good fertilization and growing conditions, fall-planted triticale and/or rye can have excellent yields. However, these large yields also carry the potential for huge windrows that don’t dry well prior to chopping. Use of wider windrows maybe beneficial.
- Small grain forages harvested in late May and June should be inoculated with a good homo-fermentative inoculant, such as Crop-N-Rich, to improve fermentation and forage quality.
- Spring-planted barley and triticale reaches the late boot stage about the same time as early-maturing oat varieties. Yields of spring-planted barley and triticale are comparable to early-maturing oat varieties, but generally yield less than forage oat types.
- Check the moisture content of small grain forages prior to cutting. Small grain forages cut in the boot stage may need extensive wilting, but small grain forages cut in the mid-head stage may need very little wilting prior to ensiling. Desirable ensiling moistures are 55 to 65 percent for small grain forages.
- Test small grain forages wet chemistry for DCAD minerals. Many small grain forages will be fed to pre-fresh dry cows and heifers. The potassium, magnesium and chloride content of small grain forages can be highly variable and levels are dependent on soil levels of these elements.
About the author: Pat Hoffman is a Vita Plus dairy technical support specialist. He received professor emeritus status after completing a 35-year career with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Dairy Science. Based at the Marshfield Ag Research Station, Hoffman’s UW-Extension services included application of dairy research and the development of dairy outreach education programs. His research focused on development of dairy replacement heifers. Hoffman earned his bachelor’s degree from UW-Platteville and his master’s in dairy science from UW-Madison. He is a member of the American Dairy Science Association and previously served as president of the Midwest Branch.