Small grain forage options for this fall

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Small grain forages can be a profitable option for producers. They can be planted in the fall and either terminated or grazed out in the early spring, allowing time to plant a summer row crop if soil moisture is adequate.

Small grain options for fall forage

There are five common small grain options for forage: spring oats, winter wheat, winter barley, winter cereal rye, and winter triticale. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Spring oats. Spring oats are usually planted in late February or March in Kansas. But spring oats can also be planted in August -- and if done so, they will produce much more fall forage than any of the other small grain forages in the fall before a killing freeze. They will almost never produce grain if planted in August. Spring oats do not need to vernalize before heading. They will develop rapidly in the fall if they have enough moisture and nutrients, and may even head out before being killed by the first hard freeze in the mid 20’s, but in most years will not have time to produce viable grain. The very mild winter last year, however, resulted in much of the spring oats planted in the fall surviving the winter last year in southern Kansas.

Spring oats can be utilized in the fall for either hay or grazing. Spring oats can be ready to graze 6 to 8 weeks after planting with adequate moisture. Under good conditions, spring oats can produce up to 1 to 2 tons of forage per acre, but as planting is delayed past early August expect less tonnage. Spring oats are not very drought-tolerant, and will not establish well or produce much forage if soils are very dry. Rye and barley are more drought-tolerant than spring oats.

Spring oats should be seeded at the rate of 2 to 3 bushels (or 64 to 96 pounds) per acre. About 30 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre will be adequate depending on yield potential and if no excess nitrogen is available in the soil.

Oat pasture can generally carry 500 pounds of beef per acre. Average daily gains range from 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per head per day. Forage quality on actively growing oats is high, with protein content in the range of 20 to 25%.

Oats are fairly susceptible to atrazine so if producers plan on planting oats this fall after corn or milo, risk of herbicide carryover that can kill seedling plants does exist.

Winter wheat. Wheat is often used for grazing and grain in so-called “dual-purpose” systems. These kinds of systems are usually balanced between getting good forage and good grain yields without maximizing yields on either side. Dual-purpose wheat is typically planted one to two weeks earlier than wheat planted for grain only, which can increase the risk of a wheat streak mosaic infection. Also, producers wanting both grazing and grain should use a higher-than-normal seeding rate and increase the nitrogen rate by 30 to 50 pounds per acre.

Producers who need more pasture than normal can plant even earlier, at the likely expense of lower grain yields. Planting very early opens wheat to many risks, such as wheat streak mosaic, barley yellow dwarf, Hessian fly, and common root rot. Wheat can also be grazed out, foregoing grain yield altogether. Wheat usually produces most of its forage in late fall and early winter, and again in the spring. There are differences among varieties in how much fall forage is produced.

Winter barley. There are now new, improved varieties of winter barley available with better winterhardiness, especially under grazing. Many of the newer varieties also produce more forage than older varieties. Barley produces palatable growth rapidly in the fall under favorable conditions. It is considered supe­rior to other cereals for fall and early winter pasture, but wheat, triticale, and rye provide better late winter and spring grazing. Barley has excellent drought and heat tolerance. Winter barley forage is typically the most palatable of the small grain cereals. And feed quality is the highest, as well.

Winter rye. Rye establishes fall pasture quickly. It also regrows rapidly in late winter and early spring. However, rye becomes stemmy and unpal­atable earlier in the spring than other cereals. Since rye is less palatable and higher in fiber than wheat or barley, cattle gains during grazing are normally greater on oat, wheat, triticale, and barley pasture than on rye pasture. Rye is the hardiest of the small grain cereals for overall tolerance to drought, heat, winterkill, and poor soil conditions.

Winter triticale. Triticale, a cross between wheat and rye, possesses the toughness of rye along with the quality of wheat. It can be grazed much harder than wheat and still recover to produce grain. Triticale has longer effective spring grazing than rye, but not as long as wheat. Depending on the variety, winter triticale will head later than rye so the forage can remain higher in quality later into the spring. Heading date on all winter cereals should be a consideration if spring grazing is the goal.

Small grain pasture management

As planting dates get later in the fall, producers will get more fall forage production from triticale and rye. The later it gets, the more rye becomes the best option if fall forage is needed.

When planting a small grain cereal primarily for forage, use a seeding rate about 50 percent higher than if the crop were grown for grain. In western Kansas and under dry soils conditions a seeding rate of 1.5 bu/acre is recommended. In eastern Kansas or under irrigation a seeding rate near 2 bu/acre is recommended. Also, when planting a small grain cereal for grazing purposes, nitrogen (N) rates should be increased by about 30 to 50 lbs/acre. To determine the actual amount of additional N needed, the following formula can be used:

Additional lbs N/acre = (No. animals/acre) x (lbs of weight gain/animal) x 0.4

In a graze-out program, all the N may be applied in the fall. But split applications will reduce the chances of having a problem with nitrate toxicity. In addition, there may be excess nitrogen this fall from failed summer crops, so producers should use caution when putting on nitrogen this fall without a profile nitrogen soil test.

Under good growing conditions, a well-fertilized small grain dryland pasture can carry about 500 pounds of cattle per acre. Under poor growing conditions, stock­ing rates should be reduced considerably. Cattle gains of 1.5 to 2.5 or more pounds per acre per day are possible dur­ing periods of good pasture production. Under irrigation, with intensive management, much higher stocking rates are attained.

Fall grazing management is critical to the success of small grain pastures. Begin grazing when the plants are well rooted and tillered, usually about 6 to 8 weeks after planting. If the foliage is too tall when the animals are introduced, or if the crop is over­grazed, the plants will be more susceptible to winterkill. Make sure some green leaves remain below the grazing level. The minimum stubble height should be about 3 to 4 inches. Rye has a more upright growth pattern than most wheat varieties, so it should not be grazed as low. Winter barley is more susceptible to winterkill than rye or wheat. However, newer varieties of barley are exhibiting increased winter hardiness.

In terms of overall forage quality of hay, barley is highest, followed by oats, wheat, triticale, and rye. During the fall and early spring periods of peak production, the crude protein content of small grain pasture is nor­mally about 20-25 percent. Growing cattle require about 12 percent crude protein, thus no protein supple­ments are necessary.

Small grain pastures can cause bloat. Daily supplementation with poloxalene (Bloat Guard) is highly effective in reducing bloat and is available in many different feeding forms Feeding high-quality grass hay, silage, and/or an ionophore such as Rumensin or Bovatec can also provide some protection against bloat. Rumensin and Bovatec have also been shown to increase stocker cattle weight gains on wheat pasture. Mineral supple­ments containing magnesium are necessary when grazing cattle on small grain pasture to minimize the occurrence of grass tetany.


Romulo Lollato, Wheat and Forages Specialist

Doohong Min, Forage Agronomist

Doug Shoup, Southeast Area Crops and Soils Specialist

Jaymelynn Farney, Southeast Area Beef Specialist