At no point in the history of U.S. agriculture have winter cereal grains been relied upon as a staple forage resource more than they currently are.
Although cereals have long been grazed in the South and Southwest, mechanical harvesting in the spring is now also becoming a commonplace activity. This has partially been spurred by the desire for winter cover and “live” roots following the harvest of an annual crop like corn.
Getting the most value out of winter cereal forages begins in the fall, and one of the primary factors that sorts out great results from just good results is planting date. In many cases, the grain drill should be entering the field soon after the last load of corn silage is hauled out.
Based on research and experience, winter cereals planted for forage need to be in the ground ahead of typical cereals for grain planting dates. This allows plants time to produce the maximum number of tillers, which enhances yield potential. Later planting dates are possible, but they come with a significant yield penalty.
Early planting also allows for adequate development of root and top growth. A strong root system is important to reduce winter heaving injury.
Tom Kilcer, an independent crop consultant based in Kinderhook, N.Y., has reported triticale yield declines of over 30% when planting dates creep into early October.
Winter cereal crops are resilient plants and need to go through a process called vernalization, which is a period of exposure to cool temperatures. This is what gives plants the ability to initiate reproductive development.
Seeds don’t have to emerge to go through vernalization, but they do have to absorb moisture and sprout prior to being exposed to cool temperatures. This exposure must last for at least three weeks with temperatures near 40°F, although the exact temperature and time period varies by species and variety.
Beyond planting date, there are some other important keys to successful cereal forage establishment. They include:
1. Plant high-quality seed of a proven variety
New varieties generally get developed and released because they’re better than the existing, older varieties. More and more universities and private companies are routinely testing cereals for forage yield and quality. Take advantage of this information. Of course, planting certified, weed-free seed of known germination percentage and purity will always pay dividends.
2. Plant at the right depth
Drill seed 1.25 inches deep. Shallower planting depths predispose the plant to winterkill and heaving. A grain drill that commands optimum seed placement returns a much larger likelihood for success than broadcasting the seed followed by light tillage.
3. Feed it
Fertilize early planted cereals with 40 to 60 pounds per acre of nitrogen unless fields have received a fall manure application. Nitrogen is needed to promote tillering, which is important to maximize yield in early spring plantings. Winter annuals will take up nitrogen in the fall and keep it from leaching through the soil profile.
An additional application of nitrogen in the spring will help promote spring tillering and also may improve the crude protein content of the forage.
What to expect
Meeting the above establishment criteria, growers can expect a crop that will tolerate almost anything Mother Nature is willing to dish out over winter. This is especially true for cereal rye.
Harvested at the flag leaf or boot stage, cereals will provide highly digestible forage. Cereal forages have more hemicellulose and less lignin than alfalfa. Because of this, cereal forages have less undigestible neutral detergent fiber (NDF) and greater NDF digestibility when compared to alfalfa.
Many dairy herds are maintaining high levels of milk production when cereal forage is included in the ration. Coupled with its soil-enhancing benefits and ability to add to forage inventories, cereal forage is an all-purpose winner.