Small grain silage adds options

Cereal crops diversify fields and make good feed.

Adding diversity to cropping systems is a huge calling card for growing small grains for silage.

“Growing and harvesting small grains for feed lets you grow a crop at a different time of year than a typical grain crop like corn and soybeans,” says University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist Bruce Anderson.

“It’s an option that works well in a cover cropping system,” he says. “You can plant rye, winter wheat, or triticale as a cover crop and either graze it or harvest it as silage the next spring in May or June. That gives you enough time for double-cropping – by planting a corn crop for silage or even planting soybeans after harvesting the cereal crop.” 

Feed value defined

Making silage from small grains adds diversity and risk management to feed supplies while still providing a high-energy feed to the ration. According to “Small Grain Cereals for Forage” coauthored by Kansas State University agronomist Steve Watson, barley silage, for instance, provides 90% to 100% of the feed value of whole-plant corn silage fed in rations for growing/backgrounding cattle. Wheat silage provides 70% to 90% of the feed value of corn; oat silage provides 60% to 80%. Triticale offers 50% to 70%, and rye provides 50% to 65%.

Growing beef cattle should gain 1½ to 2¼ pounds per day when fed rations containing 85% to 90% good-quality wheat or barley silages, Watson writes.

Timing is critical to making high-quality silage from small grains. “Harvesting at the right moisture content is really important,” Anderson says. “Optimal moisture content for finely chopped silage is 65%, or 35% dry matter. Most often, you’ll get this moisture content by harvesting the crop between the milk and soft-dough stages.”

Cutting the crop for silage at this stage of maturity also produces good yields and relatively high protein. The crude protein content of wheat, barley, and oat silages harvested at the late-milk to late-dough stage is usually about two to four percentage points higher than the crude protein of corn and forage sorghum silages, Watson writes.

Depending on growing conditions, yields of small-grain silage harvested in the late-dough stage can amount to 8 to 10 tons per acre.

Risk factor

However, Anderson notes, there is a risk should the crop get too mature. “Because the stems of cereal crops are hollow, one of the risks of letting the crop get too mature is that the stems become stiffer,” he explains. “They trap air and won’t pack as tightly as they do when they’re moist.

“One reason to harvest silage around 65% moisture is so that the weight of the material forces the air out from the stems and the rest of the silage pile,” Anderson continues. “The lack of oxygen allows fermentation to take place. Having enough weight on the packing equipment is important, too, to promote good fermentation. This minimizes the potential for the heating and spoilage that will reduce the feed value of the silage.”

Palatability of small-grain silages tends to be good. “If we get good fermentation in the silage, the feed tends to be very well received by most cattle,” Anderson says. “We sometimes see that rye silage is less palatable than silages from other cereal grains. The palatability of rye silage tends to decline faster with the maturity of the crop at harvesting.”

Overall, making silage from small grains offers an option when growers consider end uses for short-season cereal crops planted as cover crops or as the second crop in a double-cropping system. 

“You’re not limited to just haying or grazing them,” Anderson says. “Making silage from them gives you another way of harvesting them in an economical fashion.”

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