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By Michelle Durnin, BSC., AGR, CAA
Agri-Solve Inc.

Winter cereals are gaining popularity as a forage crop in Ontario. Typical quality and yield data make it easy to see why:

    • Crude protein: 16.1-16.5%
    • NDFd (48h): 57-73%
    • Total Digestible Nutrients: 60-64%
    • Yield: 5.0-9.0 tonnes DM/ha (4,410-8,034 lb DM/acre)

In addition to being high quality and high yielding forages, winter cereals are ready for harvest in the early spring, when forage inventories are lowest. Being able to fill a gap in forage supply with home grown forage at a time of year when hay prices are strongest is a big advantage. Winter cereals also act as a cover crop on fields that are in annual crop production by keeping the soil covered over the winter.

Selecting the right species and implementing good agronomy practices are critical to successfully producing winter cereal forage.

Differences Between Cereal Species

Fall rye
Fall rye in the most winter hardy of the winter cereal species. It has been successfully established in Ontario as late as November, but yields are reduced with late seeding. Fall rye prefers free draining soils. It can tolerate lower soil pH than other winter cereals.
Fall rye matures earlier than any other cereal. In southern Ontario, rye typically reaches the target maturity for forage harvest between May 10th and 20th. This means that forage rye must be seeded in fields that can carry equipment traffic early in the spring.

Winter Triticale
Triticale is a hybrid between rye and wheat. In many ways, it is intermediate to its two parent species. Winter triticale matures about 10-14 days after fall rye, but before winter wheat is ready for forage harvest. It can be a good fit on soil that is not fit to carry equipment as early as rye requires. Triticale is very palatable to livestock.

Winter Barley
Winter barley has not been widely used for forage in Ontario, in part because it is the least winter hardy of the winter cereals. However, newer varieties have improved winter hardiness. Barley matures earlier than winter wheat, which makes establishing a crop to follow it easier. Winter barley should be seeded about a week before the optimum seeding date for winter wheat to ensure that it has time to establish a healthy root system before winter.

Winter Wheat
Winter wheat is not nearly as popular as rye or triticale as a forage crop, but it may be an option in some situations. Livestock find it very palatable, but with its late maturity it can be difficult to get a second crop established after forage wheat.

Yield potential of most winter cereal forage crops is maximized when seeded on the optimum seeding date for winter wheat, which can be found at www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/field/news/croptalk/2019/ct-0919a4.htm . However, rye can be successfully established after silage corn harvest. Where available and conditions permit, apply manure ahead of seeding. Seed winter cereals at a rate of 110 kg/ha (100 lbs/acre) and at 2.5 cm (1 in.) depth, or deeper to seed into moisture. For phosphorus and potassium fertility guidelines, see Chapter 4 of OMAFRA Publication 811: Agronomy Guide for Field Crops. Remember to account for nutrients from manure when calculating fertility requirements.

Apply 55-80 kg/ha (50-75 lbs/acre) of nitrogen at green-up in the spring to encourage tillering and increase forage yields. Winter cereals should be harvested between flag-leaf and early boot for high-quality forage. Cut the crop at the optimum maturity stage and wilt to the target moisture for ensiling or baleage. If the cereal shows signs of regrowth, tillage or a burn-down to terminate the cereal will prepare the field for the next crop.

Often the spring planting season conflicts with winter cereal harvest. When this occurs, the best course of action is to stop planting, harvest the forage, and then resume planting. Winter cereals can very quickly progress through the maturity stages where they have highest quality. Once the head starts to emerge, forage quality declines very rapidly. It is very difficult to replace digestible fibre in a ration, but much easier to replace the energy from the grain crops if planting is very delayed.

Winter cereal forage crops create an opportunity to double crop, which can lead to higher forage production per acre over the year. They provide the same benefits as cover crops in an annual crop rotation, as well as good quality forage for the herd. Talk to your nutritionist so that a properly balanced ration can be formulated, and necessary samples taken for analysis before feeding it. When introducing a winter cereal forage into the animals’ diet, like any other new ingredient or dietary change, introduce it gradually to allow the rumen microbes time to adapt to it and avoid digestive problems.

This article was written for the Spring 2022 Dairy Grist. To read the whole Dairy Grist, click the button below.