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Top Forage Winter Wheat

Willow Creek forage winter wheat, an awnless variety developed at Montana State University, offers benefits to Northern livestock growers.

Like other fall-seeded winter cereal crops, the forage winter wheat makes a good rotational crop for alfalfa or perennial grass. The Willow Creek variety stands out for hardiness.

“Because it’s so winter hardy, there’s not much chance it’s going to winterkill,” says Montana State University plant scientist Phil Bruckner. “It also stands out because it produces a lot of forage.”

The forage winter wheat grows as tall as 4 feet high, with test yields ranging from 2.2 to 4.1 tons of forage per acre. When the wheat is harvested for hay at the late-boot or early-heading stages, field tests peg the forage’s protein content on a dry-matter basis at 14.2%.

The high forage yield of the Willow Creek variety is a calling card for George Reich, who farms and ranches near Willow Creek, Montana.

“I get yields as high as 4 tons to the acre,” he says. “It has a lot more leaf material than the semi-dwarf varieties of winter wheat grown here in Montana. If I were cutting regular winter wheat for hay, I wouldn’t get more than 1.5 tons per acre.”

Another reason Reich likes to grow the forage winter wheat is because it tends to have fewer problems with nitrate than other cereal crops he’s grown for forage.

“In the past, I’ve grown hay barley and an oat-and-peas mix for hay, but sometimes those crops have a high nitrate content,” he says. “Bred cows shouldn’t eat hay with high levels of nitrate.”

Reich grows the forage winter wheat on fields being rotated out of alfalfa. After taking the second cut, he kills the alfalfa with desiccant before tilling the field.

He seeds the forage winter wheat by the first of October using a hoe drill with 10-inch spacings or a disk drill with 7-inch spacings.

“The disk drill keeps the field flatter for cutting hay the next year,” says Reich.

He rolls the field after seeding to help flatten the surface.

“The forage winter wheat will reach the three-leaf stage before the snow flies,” he says.


After breaking winter dormancy in spring, the wheat starts regrowing early. Reich cuts it for hay in early to mid-July, just as the heads are emerging.

Though the plants are still green at cutting, they dry quickly in the swath.

“Two days after cutting, I can bale the hay,” says Reich.

When planting the winter wheat behind alfalfa, Reich grows two years of the forage cereal back-to-back. That gives the time needed for alfalfa roots to break down.


Cows eat the wheat hay readily, but Reich finds they will choose alfalfa over the wheat if given the choice. He prefers to feed the wheat hay to replacement heifers in a 50/50 mix with alfalfa.

Grazing trials done by Montana State University show that when the forage winter wheat is grazed in early June, while it’s in a vegetative state, it regrows quickly. The regrowth produces subsequent hay yields comparable with yields of ungrazed forage winter wheat. The harvest, however, is delayed by 10 to 14 days.

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