Cereal rye is the most commonly used small grain for spring forage, but there are plenty of other high-quality options to boost spring inventories. Consider diversifying your spring forages with winter wheat, barley, or triticale to improve harvest timing and winter damage risk.
Jason Hartschuh, an extension educator with The Ohio State University explains in a recent article, the slight differences in each of the small grain forage options. He notes that all the crops have slightly different management but also many similarities.
Planting date is critical to these crops in order to maximize overall tonnage at harvest. The highest potential yields occur when planting 10 days before the hessian fly-free date, but Hartschuh advises to be wary of fly infestations or barley yellow dwarf virus infections when planting that early.
Hartschuh also notes that a timely planting improves the absorption of nitrogen.
Variety selection is another factor to take into consideration. Studies show yield variations of 3/4 to 2 tons of dry matter (DM) between some varieties of cereal grains.
“Each of the species matures at a different time but also maintains quality differently as they mature,” the educator explains. Crude protein and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestibility are highest at the boot stage and decline as the crop continues to mature.
In the boot stage, barley has a higher NDF digestibility but has lower DM yields. Hartschuh advises to avoid planting barely in wet, sandy, or low fertility soils.
Wheat is the most common small grain planted, although often not for forage. Hartschuh notes that forage varieties of wheat exist, but even most grain varieties yield more tons of DM than barley. “It also holds quality into bloom much better than rye, with yields increasing by 50 percent when cut in bloom instead of the boot stage,” he explains.
While rye is the most commonly used small grain for forage, it has some issues. It matures the earliest, but then declines rapidly in palatability and quality after the crop reaches the boot stage. Since rye is the most winter hardy, it can be planted in early fall and used for fall grazing. It also pairs well with the timing of corn planting; however, Hartschuh advises to avoid using it as your solo spring forage.
Triticale matures later than rye and the crop’s newer varieties are yielding more and better quality forage. It is a combination of wheat and rye and is a good way to stretch harvest in the spring.
Hartschuh notes that rye is an excellent forage but recommends looking into other options to better manage spring harvest time and weather. Each option comes with some downfalls but choosing more than one small grain for spring forage is a good way to better manage harvest timing and diversifies the overall forage inventory.