Alan DeJong is enjoying a hay market that's as hot as the Mojave Desert sun.

This Newberry Springs, CA, grower's primary forage is an oats-barley-wheat mix that yields over 4 tons/acre and brings $120-150/ton from picky horse owners around Los Angeles.

The grain mix is about 70% oats, 20% barley and 10% wheat. It's planted at 100 lbs of seed per acre from December through February for harvest in mid- to late spring.

“We began growing the mix five years ago and were among the first to try it here,” says DeJong. “It's a good crop because of its high tonnage and the strong horse market at feed stores or stables in the L.A. area.”

More Southern California horse owners are buying grain-mix hay because it costs less than timothy, which can run $180-200/ton, says Juan Guerrero, Imperial County extension forage specialist. Also, many horse enthusiasts feel alfalfa “is too hot for horses,” he says. And the grain mix is a “soft forage” compared to the region's alfalfa, which can be too brittle for horses.

More growers are trying grain-mix forage to take advantage of winter and early spring desert rainfall, he adds.

Crop consultant Tim Hays introduced the mixture to DeJong. The oats variety is Sierra; the barley is Belford, a hooded variety; and the wheat is the beardless Dirkwin.

The crop is cut at about 3' tall when the oats are at soft dough. DeJong makes hefty windrows that field dry about a week before baling.

“It's easy to handle,” he says. “We don't have to rake it.”

The hay's green color makes attractive, 100- to 105-lb three-string bales.

“Oats and barley are the primary nutrients in the hay,” says Hays. “The wheat is late maturing to provide the green color wanted by our customers.”

The single cuttings average 3.5-4.5 tons/acre. Some growers get almost 5 tons/acre.

The mixture's exact nutritional value is still under study through the California Cooperative Extension Service. Grant Poole, farm advisor and part of the research team, is examining the palatability of the grain hays for horses.

“The plan is to harvest the mix at early boot, late boot, milk and soft dough stages and measure forage intake by horses,” he says.

He figures the results could be similar to the nutrient values for cool-season grass hays reviewed in Understanding Forage Quality. That publication, authored by scientists from several universities, puts digestibility at 63% for cool-season grass hay harvested in the vegetative stage, 62% at late boot and 58% at early head.

“Our current tests should give us a better understanding of how the grain-mix hays, harvested at various stages, can fit as a sound feeding program for horses,” says Poole.

Hays says grain-mix hay requires about 2 acre-feet of irrigation water for its single cutting. Alfalfa, which normally produces 9-10 tons per year on six-seven cuttings, requires about 7 acre-feet of water.

DeJong's seed costs are about $24/acre. Another advantage is that no preplant fertilizer is needed. Instead, he applies about 300 lbs of ammonium nitrate at the 2" stage. If weeds are a problem, he applies 2,4-D. Because of his isolation and desert climate, DeJong has been able to avoid stripe rust problems seen elsewhere in California.