It could be said that cereals don’t have a maturity window for harvesting high-quality forage but rather a peephole.

The popularity of small grains as forage crops has never been higher. Be it winter annuals such as rye, wheat, and triticale, or spring-planted cereals such as oats, barley, or triticale, we now find cereals planted from coast to coast and border to border.

In a report last week from Penn State’s Greg Roth, he notes that winter rye is maturing nearly 10 days earlier this year compared to previous years. In fact, the extension agronomist said some areas of the state had already completed their ryelage harvest. Triticale and wheat may not be far behind.

Roth points out that this year’s early maturing crop is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, there should be minimal late planting yield loss for the subsequent corn crop. Conversely, to realize high-quality forage from the cereal, you’ll have to be ready to cut earlier than normal.

The optimum harvest stage for cereals is mid- to late boot. This is when the flag leaf has fully emerged and unfolded but before seedheads are visible. The window to hit this stage is usually only a few days. As is the case with most forage species, if temperatures are cool, optimum forage quality will be maintained longer than if temperatures are warm to hot.

In addition to the narrow harvest window, rainfall this time of year can also be a detriment for getting cereals cut and harvested; sometimes it’s the biggest deterrent. Tom Kilcer, an independent crop consultant in Kinderhook, N.Y., recommends spreading the crop out as wide as possible when cutting. This puts more of the crop in contact with the sun, enhancing the dry-down rate and allowing more of the green plant tissue to maintain photosynthesis.

Kilcer also suggests that even wide swaths may need additional manipulation with a tedder to speed drying. This is especially true if swath widths are less than 80 percent of cut width. He recommends tedding be done about two hours after cutting to spread and invert the forage. Minimizing time from cutting to chopping helps preserve forage quality.

One final note of caution on winter cereals: If corn is to follow, as it often does in the Midwest and Northeast, be on the lookout for armyworms. Cereals are an attractive site for moth egg laying in the spring. Keep a close eye on the developing corn crop, and control any grass regrowth as soon as possible.

Spring cereals

Though spring planting small grains for forage has become somewhat less common in recent years, there is still a significant amount of alfalfa acreage planted with an oat companion crop. Once again, the narrow harvest window comes into play and may actually be amplified because air temperature is generally assured to be hot at the time of harvest.

In addition to forage quality considerations, a timely harvest for spring cereal plantings is needed to eliminate completion with the alfalfa. From the time oats reach the boot stage until the grain matures, only bad things can happen to the underseeded alfalfa. These include:

  • Severe moisture and light competition that may lead to a reduction in established alfalfa plants.
  • Lodging of the small grain and the subsequent smothering of the alfalfa plants.
  • Insect infestations (potato leafhopper) that injure or kill alfalfa plants. Such injury usually goes undetected and untreated because of the standing small grain crop.

Cereal forages, whether spring or fall planted, provide the opportunity to harvest generous yields of high-quality, relatively low-cost forage. But to achieve that end, attention to harvest timing will be needed. That may be especially true in 2017.