Small Grain Cover Crops

Which do I plant for Forage?

Small grains have recently become more prevalent as a possible cover crop option.  With the greater need for quality feed sources, these cereal grain options are becoming increasingly popular as forage supplements to existing perennial hay and summer annual acres.  Even though many management factors are consistent across all these cereal options, differences do exist on quality and tonnage…

Wheat – Wheat has good potential for forage and is usually higher in quality than rye, triticale, and oats, but not barley.  However wheat usually produces more dry matter than barley.  When choosing a wheat variety for forage, plant height should be a consideration more so than grain yield, unless it will be harvested for grain yield later.

Best Use – Fall & Spring Pasture; Silage (boot to dough stage); Hay (boot to milk stage)

Rye – Rye offers the advantage of being the easiest to establish in poor soils and having the greatest cold tolerance of the small grain cereal options.  Rye offers the greatest production for hay or pasture ground because of its quick growth both in the fall and spring.  Rye can easily drop off in quality very quick in late spring.  BEST USE – Fall, Winter, & Spring Pasture

Triticale – Triticale is a cross between wheat and rye.  This makes for a crop with a higher yield than wheat, but lower quality.  Triticale is best suited for grazing pasture; because of large stems, hay wilting & silage packing is difficult.

Best Use – Fall & Spring Pasture; Silage & Hay (boot to dough stage)

Winter Barley – Because barley is the most susceptible to winterkill, consideration should be made when grazing late into the fall.  Barley’s value as a silage crop is comparable to whole-plant corn.

Best Use – Fall Pasture; Silage & Hay (boot to dough stage)

Oats – Spring oats can be planted in the fall, as long as it’s early enough to justify 90-100 day production.  Otherwise, oats are planted in the spring, typically for hay or silage.

Best Use – Silage (milk to dough stage); Hay (boot to heading stage)

Silage Production 

Wheat, barley, oat, and triticale silage yields are similar – 4-7 tons / AC of 35% Dry Matter forage in the boot stage and closer to 6-10 tons / AC when harvested in the late boot stage.  Small grains should be ensiled at between 62 – 68% moisture.  Chop finer than corn or forage sorghum.

Feed values of small grains compared to whole-plant corn silage:     barley is 90-100% of corn; wheat is 70-90% of corn; oats are 60-80% of corn; triticale is 50-70% of corn; and rye is 50-60% of corn.

Silage Quality of Small Grains harvested at Dough Stage

table on silage quality included in small grain cover crop information






Hay Production

Hay yields often average between 2 and 4 tons / AC.  Moisture content should be between 15-20% moisture.  Hay quality is more maturity dependent at harvest than is silage.  The most efficient time to harvest small grain cereals for hay is at early-milk stage.  This allows for the greatest compromise between forage yield and quality (quality would be greatest at the late-boot stage). To help speed up drying, a crimper is recommended is harvesting in the late-boot stage.

Hay Quality of Small Grains harvested at Dough Stage

table on hay quality included in small grain cover crop information






Information Provided by: Kansas State