A group of UK specialists were recently discussing what is the best small grain for high quality forage. The consensus was wheat, since it is widely available and favored by many KY growers for forage. For dairy or other high producing livestock, you need to harvest at the boot stage (or sooner) to maintain high quality. At this stage protein content and digestibility are high – similar to alfalfa haylage or corn silage. When harvesting at this early stage, the field can be double-cropped with corn or full season soybeans. It is very difficult to cure early season small grain forages for hay, so most producers preserve as silage or baleage.
Beef producers growing wheat for forage often graze the crop late winter (early March) and then harvest later in the reproductive growth stage (at the milk to soft-dough stage). At this later stage, yields are much higher, but the forage is said to be nutritionally equivalent to an average hay crop. When grazing wheat or any small grains, make sure to remove cattle once stems begin to elongate if you plan to harvest the regrowth.
Forage yields between wheat varieties vary by over one ton per acre so refer to Table 4 of the 2017 Kentucky Small Grain Variety Performance Test. Ideally, choose a variety that performs well over several years. For example, the 3 year average shows Pioneer26R10 with consistently high forage yields and also high grain yields. Other varieties that have done well over the past 3 years are: Beck 125; Agrimax 438 DynaGro 9223, DynaGro 9522; Agrimax 454 and VaTech Hilliard. Newer high yielding varieties with only 2 years of test data include: Seed Consultants 13S26, Croplan SRW 9415 and USG 3197.
Nick Roy, Adair County Extension Agent, shared his experiences with local farmers. “I see very few dairy farmers planting cereal rye anymore, unless they are just using it for grazing or cover crop. Rye has a very small harvest window for high quality. The most planted crop for us (Adair County) is still wheat. Cosaque black oats and annual ryegrass are gaining in popularity. There are now later maturing triticale varieties available, but they seem to have the same quality problems as older varieties, just a few weeks later in the season. A lot of my farmers who have planted barley have had trouble with Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus. I seldom see winter oats planted in Adair county because they are not very winter hardy .
Overall, my “go to” recommendation is still wheat. A certified wheat selected from our forage trials would be ideal, but many farmers still plant bin run seed. (Note: it is illegal to save seed of some propriety wheat varieties). If they want higher quality I recommend annual ryegrass.”