Articles on forages, animals, and grazing systems
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Extension Forage Specialist
University of Kentucky
Phone: (859) 257-3358
Fax: (859) 323-1952
The use of cereal grains, such as oats, barley, wheat, rye, and triticale, can be an effective way to extend the grazing season. Wheat, rye, and barley are commonly grown in Kentucky for forage use. These small grains are usually planted in early fall and can be used for late fall and early spring grazing. When forage growth of most grasses and legumes has slowed or ceased, small grains continue to produce new, high quality growth into the early winter and they reinitiate growth earlier in the spring, which can greatly reduce the use of stored feed. Production of cereal grains declines in the winter months and picks back up in late February. These plants are also used as a cover crop to protect pastures from soil erosion in the winter months and as a way to use residual nitrogen fertilizer from a previous application. These species are often used in rotation with corn or soybeans.
There is a variety of ways in which small grains can be utilized in a forage system. They are usually grazed in the fall and then again in early spring. If these pastures are given an adequate rest and regrowth period, there are a range of possible uses. First, they can be used strictly for grazing and can be grazed again after regrowth reaches 6 to 8 inches. It is also important not to allow them to become too mature before grazing. Small grains can be inter-seeded into established pastures to extend the grazing season of those pastures. Next, when regrowth is enough, the crop can be harvested for grain, silage, or can be cut for hay. The location, soil type, climate, management, facilities, and species and varieties used should influence the system utilized.
Each species has different qualities and are adapted to different conditions. Consider these factors when deciding which to use. Barley produces high quality silage and hay which usually have higher digestibility and quality than the other species. Barley needs to become well established before winter and should be planted around mid-September. It should not be grazed as close or as late in the season as wheat or rye. Wheat also produces high quality forage and silage. Wheat silage is usually higher quality than rye and produces significantly higher yields than barley. For best fall grazing, it is recommended that wheat be planted in August. For highest silage production, plant in early to mid-October. Rye is the most winterhardy and is the most productive of the three because of its quick growth rate. Although it has the potential for the highest total season production, rye can become stemmy, high in fiber and lignin, and less palatable very rapidly. Rye usually produces lower quality silage. It should be planted in late August to maximize fall grazing or in early October to late November for greatest silage production. Certain varieties are better suited for silage use. Each of these species are adapted to different soil types and environmental conditions which are important to consider.
In order to produce high quality forage, it is necessary to harvest these forages at the optimum maturity. Small grains should be harvested for hay or silage at boot stage. The following stages are recommended for each small grain: rye, oats, and triticale-boot; wheat and barley- late boot and if harvest is delayed at soft dough. For grazing, it is important to remove animals once stem elongation occurs if you plan to harvest the crop for hay or silage. At this stage, the internode region elongates and the nodes and growing point begin growing away from the soil surface.A long, stiff stem or the“true” stem starts to form which will carry the seedhead. Grazing after stem elongation will reduce forage yield because the growing point is "grazed off." If the small grain is only to be used for grazing ,(example - cereal rye), then it's fine to continue to graze.In fact, rotational grazing with frequent moves will keep the growing points grazed off and the plants will remain vegetative until mid-spring.These species can have crude protein content as high as 18-22 percent but this drops rapidly during stem elongation and seed formation. Once this stage is reached, fiber and lignin content increase, and forage quality and production greatly declines. The recommended stage to harvest varies slightly with species and harvesting method.
The use of small grains in a grazing system is most effective when pastures are well managed. Using rotational grazing can increase production and utilization. Plants need to be well established before being grazed and need a rest and regrowth period. Adequate leaf area should be left after fall grazing in order for good spring growth. Possible problems when grazing small grains include the possibility of forage related disorders such as grass tetany and bloat. Supplement a high “Mag” mineral to reduce the risk of grass tetany. Bloat is less likely but keeping an eye on the herd to watch for signs can reduce the risk. Supplements to reduce bloat may be used.
Using small grains for both grazing and grain production may increase profitability. In order to produce a good grain crop livestock should be removed from pasture in the spring. Wheat should not be grazed after stem elongation or when nodes start to develop. Use management skills to reduce trampling which will reduce grain crop yields.
Small grains can be cut for hay, which has a lower feeding value than silage, but can be ideal to feed to livestock with lower nutrient requirements such as replacement heifers, dry dairy cows, and beef cows. Maturity has a big impact on hay quality. For highest quality hay, forages should be harvested at late boot stage (just before the seed head appears outside the sheath). Hay should be baled at a moisture level of 15-20%. Possible issues with small grain hay are high nitrates and complications caused by awns. Awns may cause soreness and irritation of the mouth and eyes. Awnless wheat varieties are available.
These forages also make average to high quality silage. The highest quality silage comes from barley cut at the late boot stage. It is recommended that wheat and barley be harvested during the late boot or later at the soft dough stage (if rain delays harvest) and rye be harvested during the boot stage. Silage should be wilted to 62-68% moisture. Some difficulties when using small grains for silage versus corn and sorghum are the small grains may be more difficult to cut at the ideal stage and to ensile. These forages must be chopped finer than corn or sorghum to minimize air entrapment and spoilage. If the plants are too mature or stems are too long, spoilage may be a problem. A silage inoculant can be used if the crop is ensiled in cooler temperatures.
Small cereal grains can be a great way to extend the grazing season. Using these crops for grain, silage, or hay in addition to grazing can increase income from the crop and can cut down on winter feeding costs. Barley, wheat, rye, triticale, and oats are commonly used as forages.