April 5, 2017 11:58 AM

Mike Rankin
Most major league baseball teams have what they like to term a utility player — a guy who can start at multiple positions or pinch hit for just about anyone in the lineup at any point in time and then assume that player’s defensive position.

Going way back, Bert Campaneris was one such utility player for the Oakland A’s and was the first one to play all nine positions in the same game (September 8, 1965). Campaneris also could pitch either left- or right-handed.

The guy I best remember as a prototypical utility player was José Oquendo, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. In 1987, Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog called Oquendo “The Secret Weapon.” Like Campaneris, Oquendo could be found playing anywhere on the diamond. These days, guys like Ben Zobrist (Cubs), Brock Holt (Red Sox), and Matt Carpenter (Cardinals) are amongst utility royalty.

Versatility is often underappreciated; that’s probably because the versatile person or thing is generally not the best at any role. Yet, to be competent in a variety of situations clearly has great value. This is true in baseball, and it’s also the case for forage crops. So, here’s my nomination for the best forage utility player: cereal grains.

Over the past two years, I have traveled coast-to-coast and border-to-border talking to farmers and walking their fields. Almost always I find cereals — rye, wheat, oats, barley, or triticale — playing a role to produce meat or milk. Mostly, these cereals are being grown for forage, and all the heralded soil benefits come along for the ride. Cereals are being grazed, baled, wrapped, and chopped; sometimes all of the above on the same farm.

While in the Northeast, I saw winter rye and triticale being used extensively following or between corn silage crops on dairy farms. The forage was generally chopped in the spring and was used not just in heifer rations but also as a staple feed component for lactating cows.

Moving south, cereals are a routine component of many winter pasture mixes for beef and dairy herds, bridging the gap between warm-season perennial seasons. In the High Plains, winter wheat is grazed in the fall and spring as either a dual-purpose crop for grain or as “graze-out” forage.

In the Midwest, both winter and spring cereal forages are widely utilized. Though currently less common, oats are still used as a spring companion crop to establish alfalfa. However, growing spring oats in the fall for grazing or for harvesting as oatlage is becoming more popular. Winter cereals (usually rye) seeded after corn silage or soybeans are also becoming a common supplemental forage option as they are in the northeast U.S.

Most recently, I returned from a trip to the Central Valley in California. There, thousands of acres of wheat and triticale are currently waiting to be chopped and included in heifer and dairy cow rations. Corn for silage will follow on most of these acres. Also in the West, oat hay is an important export commodity.

Cereal forages are rarely the most important or widely used forage crop on any operation, but many farmers across the U.S. are finding ways to utilize this valuable, high-quality, and relatively low-input forage resource. Cereals have become the José Oquendo of forages.


This editorial appeared in the March 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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