Western Canadian ranchers are gaining summer silage and late fall grazing by planting two small grains together.

Spring and winter small grains work well when intercropped, says Duane McCartney, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist at Lacombe, Alberta. The spring grain grows faster and is harvested for silage in late July, along with the under-crop of winter grain, he says.

Regrowth, mostly of the winter grain, is stimulated by topdressed nitrogen and fall rains. It tests roughly 21% crude protein and is 75% digestible.

“I can cut silage at the end of July and put cattle on in September, and we're able to graze through to November,” says McCartney. “Or, I can put the cattle on this stuff when perennial pasture is finished in October. Either way, they can get real fat before winter comes.”

Another method, he says, is to rotationally graze the intercrop all summer. The spring grain is grazed off early, then the winter grain becomes dominant.

Oats plus winter rye or triticale look like the best combination. Oat silage outyields barley silage by about 15%, and the before-mentioned winter grains are more productive than winter wheat, which has disease issues when underseeded.

Annual ryegrass, an alternative to the winter small grain, can provide even better grazing. Italian and Westerwold ryegrasses don't survive winter in western Canada. Ryegrass pastures outyield winter grains by more than 50%. Gains as high as 500-600 lbs/acre for weaned calves have been achieved on ryegrass at Ag Canada research centers in Melfort, Saskatchewan, and Lacombe.

Weaned calves will strip-graze the leafy Italian ryegrass in several inches of snow, provided they have adequate shelter.

However, ryegrass has issues. A rotary disc mower is needed to swath it before making silage. In the bunker, ryegrass should be mixed with small grain silage. And ryegrass plant residue may require extra tillage the following spring.

Westerwold varieties will set seed and contaminate next year's grain crop if they aren't mechanically harvested or heavily grazed in mid-summer in western Canada.

The two-crop combination should be seeded as early as possible in spring. Distribute the seed evenly to reduce competition for moisture and light.

“If you have a hoe drill or disc drill, you have to seed the spring cereal in one direction, then seed the winter cereal across it right away, going the other direction,” he says. “If you have access to an air seeder, you can mix the seed easily and put it on with the spread boots.”

Both crops can be seeded at a three-quarter rate to give a good balance between silage and pasture production. Rates can be adjusted, however, to provide some management flexibility.

Fertilizer should be adequate for a normal silage crop, followed by topdressing with nitrogen after the silage harvest.

“Cut the silage a little early so you have more growing degree days for the grazing crop to grow,” McCartney advises. “You lose about 10% of the silage yield, but you gain quality. The leaves of the winter crop growing at the bottom of the crop canopy increase the nutrient content of the total silage cut. Basically, you've got a crop at two levels.”

For more information, see the Western Forage Beef Group Internet site: www.foragebeef.ca.