Small Grain Harvest Options

Despite a cool start to the season, many small grains are maturing fast and nearing harvest windows. Are you ready to make the most out of these forage options?

Grazing of spring forages should begin soon if not already occurring.  Ideally we want a plant height of 6-8 inches before starting.  At this point, plant growth will occur rapidly, so grazing to maintain a vegetative state and stimulate new tiller formation is critical. To this goal, aim to keep growth between 6-12 inches when grazing. Initial stocking will be lighter, but as plants begin to grow rapidly, numbers need to be adjusted upward to match forage availability.  And remember, new lush growth like small cereals can lead to grass tetany issues, especially in lactating cattle.  So, if you haven’t already switched to a high magnesium mineral, do so now.

Producers seeking hay should consider the animal being fed and feeding method before harvesting.  For young growing cattle, small grain hay should be cut in the boot stage or as soon as possible following heading to ensure higher protein and energy content. Mature cow owners and feedlot managers may consider delaying their forage harvest until the hard dough development stage to increase forage quantity; since these cattle can utilize lower quality forage than younger beef animals. Small grains with awns like rye, triticale, and wheat can be a concern at later maturities.  Grinding the hay, feeding in ration with additional moisture, or using an awnless (beardless) variety can reduce this risk.

If you harvest for hay or silage, delaying cutting can mean higher productivity. Nebraska studies have shown an 8 ton per acre increase between harvest at boot stage and soft dough on irrigated fields of small cereal grains. The trade-off for delaying forage harvest was an 8% drop in crude protein content.  Finding the balance between quantity and quality is something forage producers know well, however rapid maturation of cereal crops makes getting the right timing even more important.  Another downside to delayed small grain forage harvest is shortening the growing season for double-crop annual forages planting such as corn or sudangrass for fall silage.

When putting up small grain silage, getting proper moisture when packing is critical.  A recent statewide study looking at 17 Nebraska producers found the biggest loss of small grain silage quality was packing too wet despite almost all producers having wilted the crop before packing. Silage packed too wet had almost 3 times the energy loss that those packed at proper moisture content Shoot for 70-72% moisture for proper packing. Study survey data showed producers who harvested at boot, heading, or pollination stage and wilted for 16 to 24 hours appeared more likely to achieve target moisture levels.  

If you take the time to get proper moisture levels, ensure your pile is well packed and covered to prevent soilage during the fermentation period.  While it may not be easy to see due to shrinkage and compaction, dry matter loss as high as 25% is a common occurrence in uncovered piles. 

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: