Vol 5: No. 10
Forages for Spring Planting
Do forage yields differ between spring cereals?
What makes ForagePlus so different?
Does forage quality differ between spring cereals?
What effect does harvest timing have on forage yield and quality?
Planting cereal crops in the spring for forage is a common practice in Wisconsin when forage supplies are short, hay prices are high, or there has been a high degree of alfalfa winterkill. This Focus on Forage will discuss management considerations for spring planted cereal crops, primarily oats, barley, and triticale (wheat x rye cross). A companion publication, "Cereal Forages for Fall Planting", addresses considerations for winter wheat, rye, and triticale.
yield of spring cereals is affected by species planted, variety selection,
seeding date, and time of harvest. When harvested at the boot to early
head stage, the three spring cereal species are capable of providing 1.5 to
2.5 tons of dry matter per acre. Variety selection within species has
a significant impact on overall yield. This is especially true for
oats where a wider range of varieties is available. Table 1 summarizes
selected oat and barley variety dry matter yields harvested at the late boot
stage in the University of Wisconsin trials during 2001-2002.
Some general guidelines pertaining to spring cereal yields are as follows:
ForagePlus is a forage oat variety developed by the University of Wisconsin. From strictly a yield standpoint, it's in a class by itself. Dry matter yields of ForagePlus are about 25 percent higher than that of the highest yielding standard oat varieties. ForagePlus matures about a week later than late maturing grain varieties and has somewhat lower forage quality (1 to 3 percentage units lower crude protein than standard oat varieties). The lower forage quality can be offset by harvesting in the early boot stage but expect a corresponding decrease in yield.
Differences in forage quality are relatively small between cereal grain species when harvested at a similar stage of maturity. Some research and variety evaluation trials indicate significant differences among small grain varieties. For example, the range in crude protein content among oat varieties tested in recent University of Wisconsin trials was 11.9 to 15.6 percent. Early maturing varieties trended toward the higher end of this range. Other research studies indicate that crude protein content of boot-cut cereal forages can range from 16 to 20 percent depending on variety. Nitrogen fertility has a significant impact on crude protein content of small grain forages.
As with most
forage crops, there is a yield – quality tradeoff as small grains mature
from boot to dough maturity stages. Dry matter yields range from 1.5 -
2.5 tons per acre at late-boot stage to 3.0 - 4.0 tons per acre in the milk
and dough stages.
Timing of the
cereal forage harvest is critical to obtain the desired forage quality.
Be alert! The window for harvest is often small for any given stage of
maturity and desired forage quality. Typical forage quality values of
oats harvested at different maturity stages are presented in Table 2.
Farm and research experience indicate that cereal forage quality can be highly variable among years and environments. Actual forage quality may be different from those presented in Table 2. Like most grasses, the NDF component of cereal forage is more digestible than that of legumes such as alfalfa. Thus, at similar total fiber concentrations, cereal forages will provide more digestible fiber and energy compared to alfalfa.
harvest timing depends on the type of animals being fed, species planted,
and if the cereal is underseeded with alfalfa. For lactating dairy
cattle, cereal forages need to be harvested as the first grain heads appear
in a field (late boot stage). This provides a feed with more energy
and similar protein levels to late-bud alfalfa and similar energy but a
higher protein content than corn silage. If used as a companion crop,
early harvest of a small grain reduces competition with the legume and will
allow for an extra alfalfa harvest before September 1.
If the cereal
is going to be fed to heifers or dry cows, producers may elect to wait until
the crop reaches the milk or early dough stages. This will provide
adequate nutritional value while significantly increasing dry matter yields.
Triticale grain heads become unpalatable to livestock as they mature.
For this reason, never harvest triticale later than the milk stage.
Where cereal forage is being substituted for alfalfa haylage or corn silage, consult with your nutritionist to make appropriate ration adjustments. For example, cereal forage will provide less calcium in the ration than alfalfa. Because there is a wide variation in cereal forage quality from factors such as variety planted, fertility, harvest timing, and environment, always perform a feed analysis before making any ration adjustments.
Small grain/pea mixtures are often grown on Wisconsin farms to increase forage yield and protein levels. For details about this management alternative, refer to the Focus on Forage companion publication "Pea and Small Grain Mixtures".
high yields of high quality cereal forage begins with good agronomic
practices. These include:
Nitrogen plays an important role in cereal forage quality, especially protein content. However, too much nitrogen can be detrimental from the standpoint of increased lodging potential and risk of plant nitrate accumulation. If seeded without a legume crop, apply 40 lb/a of additional nitrogen fertilizer to the cereal forage. Cut this amount in half (20 lb N/a) if seeded as a companion crop.
manure was applied to the field either the previous fall or prior to seeding
in the spring, no additional nitrogen is needed.
In general, seed oats at 70 to 90 pounds per acre, barley at 80 to 100 pounds per acre, and triticale at 100 pounds per acre. Adjustments to these rates need to be made as follows:
grains cut in the boot stage will be over 80 percent whole plant moisture.
Wilt the crop to between 55 and 65 percent moisture depending on the type of
storage unit. Harvesting small grain silage that is too wet will
result in an undesirable fermentation causing a high pH and high levels of
butyric acid. Grass silages often respond favorably to silage
Small grains have been successfully harvested and stored in conventional upright silos, bunker silos, silo bags, or as high moisture large package bales. Forage can also be harvested as dry hay but wilting time will be considerably longer and at a higher risk to rain damage.
Spring-planted small grains are well adapted to Wisconsin's climatic conditions and can offer good yields of high quality forage in a relatively short amount of time. As a legume companion crop, they compete well with weeds and reduce soil erosion on vulnerable soils. Although dry matter yields are less than that of alfalfa or corn silage, spring small grains offer dairy producers a good forage alternative in years of short forage supply. When cut in the boot to early heading stages, small grain forage is high in energy and protein. Follow recommended agronomic practices to obtain maximum yields and forage quality.