Using small grains as a dependable forage source will depend on several factors, including production potential, season of production, and winterhardiness.
Using small grains as a dependable forage source will depend on several factors, including production potential, season of production, and winterhardiness.

By Daren Redfearn, Nebraska Extension Forage and Crop Residue Systems Specialist; Bruce Anderson, Nebraska Extension Forage Specialist; Jerry Volesky, Nebraska Extension Range and Forage Specialist; and Mitch Stephenson, Nebraska Extension Range and Forage Specialist

Not all small grain species are equal when it comes to forage production, but there are a few things that we can expect with some regularity. A few certainties are:
• Oats will not survive the winter in the central and northern Great Plains.
• It is hard to beat oats for fall forage production.
• Cereal rye has slow fall growth, but it can be a superb spring forage.
• Occasionally triticale or barley will be better than either oats or cereal rye.

Many of the seasonal differences between winter and spring small grains are related to vernalization or the need to go through a cold winter period. In many cool-season plants including the winter small grains, this physiological process is necessary for stem elongation and heading. It occurs through the combination of cold temperatures coupled with short day length.

Winter small grains have a strict requirement for vernalization to initiate stem elongation and heading. Winter species planted in the late summer or early fall will be vegetative only with minimal stem elongation. Forage yield be lower, but with high quality suitable for grazing. In spring once they resume growth, stem elongation and heading can occur rapidly.

Spring small grain species and cultivars do not require vernalization for stem elongation and heading. When planted in the late summer, some spring species can have significant fall growth. However, spring small grains have minimal or no winterhardiness, so when planted in the late summer or early fall they will most likely not survive the winter.

We can take advantage of vernalization to increase our understanding of forage production from the small grains. There are both spring and winter varieties with different forage production potential, season of production, and winterhardiness. This makes small grain species and variety selection important for expectations of forage production during the fall and spring.

Planting options for fall production
Both spring and winter small grains planted in late summer and early fall have the potential to produce fall forage. If fall forage production is a primary management goal, the best option may be to plant a spring species, such as oats or another spring small grain. Fall forage production from spring species is usually greater than winter species. However, fall forage production will vary because of the uncertainty in timely precipitation and extreme temperature fluctuations.

Planting options for spring production
Cereal rye planted in late-summer or early fall is the best choice for the earliest possible spring grazing. The major disadvantage to cereal rye is that once it begins spring growth, it matures very quickly, becomes stemmy, and forage quality rapidly declines. Most cereal rye cultivars will survive winters in the central and northern Great Plains, regardless of whether they are they classified as a “northern type” or a “southern type”. Northern-type cereal rye cultivars are very winter hardy with longer winter dormant periods than the southern types. Southern types can have longer growth into the winter and are often the first of the small grains to begin growth the following spring. Expected spring production will usually provide 2 to 3 tons of forage per acre.

Planting small grain mixtures
Planting simple mixtures of winter and spring small grain species and varieties in late summer may increase the chance of producing both fall and spring grazing. One example is a mixture that includes both oats and cereal rye. Using this method, oats will provide the majority of the forage during the fall. It will winterkill, then the cereal rye will provide early spring grazing. There may be combinations of other small grains that are also suitable for improving seasonal distribution of forage yield.

Using small grains as a dependable forage source will depend on several factors, including production potential, season of production, and winterhardiness. All small grains can produce forage, so the options are:
• Fall forage production only from oats, spring triticale, and/or spring barley
• Mainly spring production from cereal rye, winter triticale, and/or winter barley
• A combination of fall and spring production from spring small grains (oat, spring triticale, or spring barley) and winter small grains (cereal rye, winter triticale, or winter barley).

Characteristics of small grain species

OATS is one of the most commonly used small grains for fall forage production, but it nearly always fails to survive cold temperatures in the central and northern Great Plains. Oats are commonly classified as either “grain-type” or “forage-type” oats. This designation is related more to maturity and growth height, than intended use. Under reasonable growing conditions, both types will produce adequate forage for grazing, but there are some key differences. The grain-type oat varieties are usually early- to medium maturity with a short to medium plant height. The forage-type oats are usually medium- to late-maturing varieties that are tall at maturity. Early-maturing, fall-planted oats may have a long enough growing season to produce a small amount of grain. On the other hand, the growing season will not be long enough for later maturing varieties to produce a seedhead. While the forage yields may be similar, the forage quality will likely be greater in the later maturing, taller forage types.

Most cereal rye cultivars will survive the winter in the central and northern Great Plains, regardless of whether they are classified as a “northern type” or a “southern type”. Northern-type cereal rye cultivars are very winter hardy with longer winter dormant periods than the southern types. Thus, the southern types will have longer growth into the winter and are often the first of the small grains to begin growth the following spring.

Triticale is a promising small grain forage that has characteristics of both its parents, wheat and cereal rye. There are spring and winter varieties of triticale, but there are no extensive evaluations of fall or spring forage production for either type. It is more susceptible to winter injury than cereal rye. One of the more obvious differences between winter triticale and cereal rye is that plant maturity of triticale in the spring is two to three weeks later than cereal rye. This means it maintains its forage quality better into late spring than cereal rye, so it can also be managed for hay or silage. Early indications are that triticale may offer some additional flexibility as a small grain for fall and spring forage production.

Barley is another promising small grain forage. Like triticale, there are both spring and winter varieties of barley. The spring varieties do not have much winterhardiness and many winter varieties do not consistently survive the winter in the central and northern Great Plains. The widespread use of spring barley as a fall forage and winter barley as a spring forage has not been extensively evaluated, although they both appear promising in early forage evaluations.