Hulless oats, beardless barley offer higher quality.

High yields and good feed value have made corn silage the annual forage of choice for livestock producers in many parts of the U.S. But the need for specialized planting and harvesting equipment, coupled with high input costs, can make corn impractical for some producers.

Researchers at USDA's Central Grasslands Research and Extension Center in Streeter, ND, are taking a closer look at naked (hull-less) oat hay as a possible substitute for the corn silage component in winter livestock rations.

In a 1998 feeding trial, replacement beef heifers were fed either baled naked-oat hay or chopped corn silage. Researchers found little difference in average daily gain, dry matter intake and feed efficiency between the groups. In a companion study, they looked at input costs. They calculated the cost of growing oats at $89.56/acre while the cost of growing corn silage was $139.80/acre. Higher seed costs, increased nitrogen fertilizer requirements and more tillage were among the factors that pushed up the cost for corn.

What's more, the study didn't take into account the fact that harvesting corn silage could require livestock producers to update their machinery lines.

“A lot of our cattle producers don't have the specialized equipment (corn planter, forage chopper, etc.) that's required for a corn crop,” says CGREC director Paul Nyren. “But they do have a grass seed drill and a hay baler that they could use for an oat crop. In that case, the oats might be a better annual forage choice for them.”

There's a flexibility consideration too, he says. “If it looks like it's going to be a dry year where you might not have a lot of grass, you could plant the naked oats with the idea that you'd bale it. Then if it turned out that you had plenty of grass and didn't need to put up forage, you could still harvest the oats for grain.”

Slightly different considerations have also sparked interest in alternative annual forage crops in the Northwest. Among the more promising developments: Oregon State University's release of a beardless winter barley variety called Hoody.

Intended for use as a hay barley, Hoody gives producers an additional option for planting a winter cover crop following fall harvest.

“In the Columbia Basin, there's a lot of concern about nitrogen and phosphorus,” explains retired Oregon State plant breeder Matt Kolding. “With Hoody, you can take up nutrients left over from fields planted to onions, potatoes or sugar beets, establish records for a conservation program and still harvest a hay crop in the spring.”

Kolding points out that winter hay barleys developed in the East often aren't suited for the climatic conditions of the Northwest.

“They tend to go to pieces on us out here because of the low humidity,” he says. “Hoody is also an attractive alternative to other cereal crops like wheat and rye because of its earlier maturity (two to three weeks).”

One downside to Hoody, says Kolding, is that it can be susceptible to barley stripe rust. “You might have to use a fungicide for control,” he notes.