Winter annual small grain harvest sorts itself as being different than any other forage crop harvest. With cutting time typically based on maturity, winter annual crops such as rye, triticale, and wheat are usually wet at the time of harvest, making them difficult to dry.

“While small grains must be harvested at an early stage of growth to ensure good feed quality, excessive moisture can pose a risk when ensiling,” cautions Rainey Rosemond, an extension dairy educator with Penn State University. “Small grains harvested during the boot stage will likely have a moisture exceeding 70%. In this case, cutting the crop at the boot stage to maintain quality and wilting it below 70% moisture prior to chopping will help avoid ensiling concerns with wet forages,” she adds.

Winter annual cereals are often harvested during a time of the year when the likelihood of rain is high. For this reason, harvests can easily be delayed beyond the optimum boot stage. If this occurs, Rosemond suggests targeting the feed for dry cows and heifers rather than lactating cows.

“When feeding small grains to close-up dry cows or heifers, be aware of potential issues with potassium levels,” Rosemond notes. “It is important to make sure your nutritionist regularly — as frequently as biweekly — samples small grains fed to dry cows and runs a wet chemistry package on minerals to balance a close-up ration correctly.”

Regardless of storage method, wet small grain forage needs to be monitored for both seepage and butyric acid concentrations. Particle size is also an important consideration. A recent Penn State study demonstrated that cereals stored in a vertical silo had a more ideal particle size for mixing than those harvested and wrapped as baleage.

“If small grains will be stored as wrapped bales, make sure to allow time during mixing for these to chop to a desirable length,” Rosemond notes. “Prior to feeding small grains, check and either sharpen or replace mixer wagon knives as needed.”

Wrap small grains stored as bales with a minimum of seven to eight layers of sun-resistant plastic. If the wrap becomes compromised, repair holes using ultraviolet, light-protected plastic tape.

As is the case for other forages stored in piles or bunker silos, Rosemond advises that the storage units be covered quickly after packing and then properly sealed. For silage bags, all oxygen must be removed from the bag during packing to ensure an ideal fermentation and to maintain crop quality.

“Small grains can be used to extend forage inventories and provide a consistent feed on farms,” Rosemond says. “However, when chopped late, small grains have reduced overall feed quality and might not support the targeted milk production. While harvest timing will drive crop quality, also remember that improper storage can impact quality at feed out,” she concludes.