NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — Cooler temperatures have slowed spring pasture growth; delayed crop planting; and limited cover crop production. So, cattle producers needing forage may consider harvesting small grains such as wheat, rye, triticale and oats as hay or silage.
When deciding timing and how to harvest, begin with the end in mind; noting that spring drying of windrowed forage can be a challenge. For young growing cattle, small grain hay should be cut in the boot stage or as soon as possible after heading to ensure higher protein and energy content. Awnless (beardless) varieties are preferred if harvest is delayed past the full heading stage. Mature cow and feedlot managers may consider delaying their forage harvest until the dough development stage to increase forage quantity; since these cattle can utilize lower quality forage than younger beef animals.
In Nebraska Extension forage harvest studies, wheat and rye yields almost double by delaying spring harvest just one month. Compared to early May (boot stage) harvest, early June (soft dough growth stage development) irrigated biomass yields on average increase from 12 tons per acre to 20 tons per acre. However, the trade-off for delaying forage harvest is that forage crude protein content decreases proportionally dropping from 18% at the boot stage to 10% crude protein at the dough kernel grain stage. Another downside to delayed small grain forage harvest is shortening the growing season for double-crop annual forages planting such as corn or sudangrass intended for fall silage.
When small grains are chopped for silage (also termed: wheatlage or ryelage), there may be opportunity for add a week onto the subsequent annual crop growing season. However, if silage is your harvest choice, moisture content is critical; and the target moisture content for successful ensiling is 70-72% for proper packing. Generally, small grains have a 76-78% moisture content during the soft-dough grain stage and moisture drops 5% during harvest.
— Todd Whitney, Nebraska Extension
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