Spring Forage; Looking Beyond Cereal Rye

Jason Hartschuh, OSU Extension Crawford County, AgNR Educator

Winter wheat, barley, triticale, and cereal rye planted in the fall can produce high quality forage in the spring when harvest is in the boot stage. These forages are not equal though in there speed of maturity or quality in the soft dough growth stage. Rye grows and matures faster than the other cereals making it the ideal choice for double cropping with corn silage but is also the hardest to manage harvest timing on so that it is not over mature. After this past spring is it time to diversify our spring forage options to spread out harvest timing and risk?

Each of these crops has slightly different management strategies but many are the same. Planting date has been critical for maximizing tonnage with highest yields being achieved with planting dates 10 days sooner than the hessian fly free date but be cautious of hessian fly infestation and barley yellow dwarf virus. Timely planting leads to plants absorbing more nitrogen from last year’s crop improving tillering. Variety selection can also be an important factor in yield and rate of maturity. Most of the cereal rye planted is variety not stated but trials from Kentucky, Georgia, and North Dakota show yield variation between varieties to be ¾ to 2 tons DM in most planting locations. Triticale also has variability averaging ¾ ton DM between varieties. The study from North Dakota compared dry matter yields of 3 winter cereals, triticale varieties had the highest average yield of 2.66 tons, then wheat at 2.22 tons and finally rye yielding 1.86 tons. The rye was harvested a week before the triticale and two weeks before wheat.

Each of these species matures at a different time but also maintains quality differently as they mature. Crude Protein and Digestible NDF was the highest at the boot stage and decreased as the crop matures. Rye and barley mature the quickest but barley will maintain quality for a few days longer but yields less.

Barley is the least winter hardy small grain, therefore it needs sown earlier in the fall with an ideal planting date in early September and needs planted at a higher seeding rate between 2 and 3 bushels. It should not be planted in wet soils, sandy soils, or low fertility soils. It tends to have lower dry matter yields but is higher digestibility with lower lignin than other small grains when harvested in the boot stage.

Wheat is the most common small grain in the area but not for forage use, it is not even the best option for wet soils. While there are special forage varieties, grain varieties tend to yield more tons than barley. The greatest benefit of wheat is that it matures later than other small grains allowing for a larger harvest window. It also holds quality into bloom much better than rye with yields increasing by 50 percent when cut in bloom instead of boot stage. While some small grains can be planted earlier than the fly free date, wheat should not be planted before this.

Rye is the most common small grain used for forage but it is also the most early maturing and declines rapidly in palatability and quality from the boot stage on. It is the most winter hardy of all small grains and handles wet soils the best. Rye can also make great fall grazing when planted in early fall. While it is much easier to plant corn on time after rye with the current climate variability, it may not be the best option as your solo spring forage for a dairy rations. There is a new variety of rye on the market that is a hybrid developed in Europe, while there is little work done on it in the US it has higher forage quality and grain yield than traditional cereal rye.

The last small grains option to discuss is Triticale which is a cross between rye and wheat. Triticale yield and quality has been increasing with every new variety released. It matures slower than rye but should still be harvested in the boot stage. Planting a week before fly free date has been shown to increase yields in New York by about 20 percent. Studies have shown it respond to higher nitrogen rates without lodging than rye. While rye is still an excellent forage, is it time to move your eggs from one basket into two to better manage spring harvest timing and weather?

In addition to offering high quality forage, the small grains described above can also provide an alternative for creating bedding. One option that has gained some popularity is precut rye straw.

There are two options when making precut straw, both of them take place just after the head emerges in the spring but before pollination and seed formation. The most common process is to spray the rye with glyphosate and let stand in the field as it dries and bleaches yellow. The Pre Harvest Interval (PHI) for cereals on some glyphosate products is 7 days between application and grazing or harvest. The best rye straw comes from having a couple tenths of rain on the rye, removing the wax from the plants. Once plants are dry, mow and leave lay for a day then rake and bale. The other option is to mow and let lay in wide windrows until dry for baling. Usually the rye needs tedded at least twice in order to get it dry.

Average yields for rye straw are 1.5 to 2 tons per acre; it is recommended that you do not use spring nitrogen fertilizer because it causes rye to lodge if rates are too high. Seeding rates of one bushel or less tend to allow for more air movement within the rye, helping it dry faster. While this is becoming a more common practice with rye, it could also work with wheat and allow for earlier soybean planting. Remember, we will be removing some phosphorous and potassium in the straw.