by Tamara Scully

Today’s dairy farmers are coping with climate changes impacting the normal growing season and milk pricing that doesn’t always cover production costs. Adding small grain forages may be one way to enhance the resilience of the farm, by increasing the forage dry matter harvested from each acre of land and helping to increase profitability. Growing diverse forages can also address conservation issues, help meet the nutritional needs of the cows and reduce costs of purchased feeds.

Where land costs are high, adding small grains in rotation with existing crops may be most beneficial, as dairy farmers can harvest more forage from their acreage without increasing their land base. Small grains provide a good opportunity for double cropping, expanding the season for growing forages. By having an alternative crop when the traditional alfalfa or corn silage harvest is unpredictable, the amount of purchased feeds needed can be reduced. Increasing biodiversity of the cropping system enhances soil health, takes advantage of excessive manure fertility and provides year-round growing opportunities, all of which can help dairy farmers remain viable without expanding the herd.

“I can either milk more cows or put some other crop out there in the rotation,” Ron Hoover, coordinator of on-farm research for Penn State’s Department of Plant Science, said, presenting at the recent Penn State Dairy Nutrition Workshop. “If you’re just looking at alfalfa and corn silage, you’re just locked into it.”

Growing small grain forages

As no-till planting equipment has improved, more farmers have been opting to experiment with adding a small grain forage crop to their planting schedule. Having roots in the ground all year can help alleviate the compaction, Hoover said.

Soil health increases when a crop is in the ground year-round, and adding a small grain crop can enhance soil properties and reduce runoff and erosion concerns. Plus, the nutrients used by growing an additional crop can dairy farmers to stay in compliance with nutrient management plans.

Soil should be tested before planting any small grains. Nitrogen and potassium levels are both important. Weeds haven’t been an issue on Pennsylvania farms planting a small grain forage via no-till drilling following the corn silage harvest, Hoover said.

Quality seed makes a difference. Certified rye seed generally provides better coverage than farm-grown seed. Different cultivars have varying performance levels. Opting for forage types over cereal types of small grains can also play a role in biomass harvested.

Plant spacing has been shown to make a difference. Drilling seed in five-inch rows, rather than seven and a half inch rows, resulted in more biomass the next May in a recent cover crop trial using winter rye.

Tillering, which is a type of vegetative reproduction, occurs shortly after planting. The amount of tillering is dependent upon moisture, temperature, soil fertility and planting date. For autumn planted small grains, tillering stops as the cold weather sets in and the plant goes into winter dormancy.

“You are done until things warm up in the spring,” Hoover said. “It will tiller in the spring,” but having thick tillers in autumn, before dormancy, is the goal.

Earlier tillering allows a grower to plant less seed, reducing cost, while increasing the eventual yield. Autumn tillering produces a lot of vegetation. Snow mold can happen if there is too much vegetation going into the winter, and either grazing this or taking some of it off can be beneficial. If grazing, the cows can’t be allowed to graze down to the growing points of the plant, or new growth will be compromised.

When planting small grains in autumn for a spring harvest, earlier autumn planting provides much better coverage and results in more biomass at harvest than does seeding at the same rates later in autumn. The later the planting date, the less biomass present for spring harvest.

Some small grains grown for forage, such as oats or some triticales, will winter kill and can be planted in spring or possibly in early autumn and harvested in November. Small grains suited for autumn planting and spring harvest include some triticale, barley, wheat or winter rye. Mixes of multiple species also are an option. But no matter the small grain, or when it is planted, it will require management.

If planting oats or other winter-killed grains alone in autumn, fields are left without any cover. Including a winter rye can reduce the risk should the oats die off prior to harvest and allow you to plant an autumn-harvested small grain and a spring harvested one simultaneously, reducing time and labor. If mixing species, however, be aware that seed segregation can cause patchy spots of growth.

Dry matter, expressed in tons per acre, held relatively steady for small grains planted in late September, whether harvested in early May or mid-June, as per data from Penn State’s Rock Springs Research Center 2012-13 cover crops trial. But if the small grains harvest is delayed, quality declines and the primary crop’s planting will also be delayed. The best quality small grain forage is harvested at the boot stage.

“Planting about 30 days earlier in the fall buys you back 10 days earlier harvest in spring,” Hoover said. “Get in there earlier in spring with the discbine.”

The additional labor and time needed to harvest the small grains crop can be of concern. Wet spring soil conditions can delay harvest and cause compaction. It’s important to understand the economics of delaying the corn silage planting dates, Hoover said.

Ash content can be a concern if small grains are harvested too low. High ash content can affect silage fermentation, causing concerns of clostridium contamination. Cutting higher enhances forage quality of the small grains.

“When we talk about forage quality…there’s nothing that says we have to cut this to two to three inches,” Hoover stated, and cutting at four or five inches reduces any issues with ash. “Leave in the field some of the stuff that is essentially diluted in quality.”

Feeding small grain silage also requires management. Depending on the grain, and the stage of growth at harvest, small grains may be able to replace corn silage, coming close to matching its nutritional profile.

“It’s probably going to work pretty well for your lower producers, and certainly for your dry cows and heifers,” Hoover said of rye and other small grain forages. Having this alternative forage for these groups means more of your corn silage is available to feed the milking herd.

Small grain forages are becoming more popular as dairy farmers are looking to add resiliency to the farm. With environmental, economic and risk reduction benefits, small grain forages are worth exploring.