Ask The Vet

Know Your Wheat Hay Before Feeding Cattle

Wheat can be a great source of hay for cattle, but there are some questions every producer should ask first. (Progressive Farmer image by Becky Mills)



Would you please explain any risks of feeding mature wheat hay to cows?


Wheat can make excellent hay. Cut in the boot to very early head emergence growth stage, it can have a high nutrient content. Yield may be increased by waiting until early milk stage of the grain, but it will be lower in quality.

I recommend forage testing as a quick, easy way to assess quality. It will help you decide if supplements are needed based on the life stage of cattle you're feeding.

There are concerns with wheat hay. Always ask why the wheat was cut for hay and at what stage. I'd be concerned if this were drought-stressed wheat harvested for hay as a salvage measure. High temperatures, low moisture and low relative humidity (especially if combined with high nitrate fertilization) can cause nitrate concentrations to build up in plants. If there is any concern about nitrate toxicity, testing is advised.

Also, consider that some fungicides, insecticides or herbicides may have restrictions on grazing and forage use.

Lastly, remember there are many varieties of wheat. Some were developed for grazing, hay or silage, but most are grown for grain. Those varieties developed for grain production have rough awns to aid in harvesting. These rough-awned varieties may cause soreness and irritation to the mouth, lips, gums and lower surfaces of the tongue in cattle. Ensiling rough-awned varieties can reduce this problem, as can harvesting at the late-boot stage rather than the dough stage.