Tips for Using Small Grains for Silage

Silage for Beef Cattle Conference Explores Small Grains Management

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Cereal rye is among the many small grains that work well as a forage crop. (DTN file photo by Pamela Smith)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The proper management of small grains for forage is important as these details will help determine how much and at what quality the forage will be. Specifically, getting the crop planted at the proper time and harvesting small grains to balance between yields and nutrient content are vital steps in the process.

The subject of small grains for silage was the focus of two different presentations at 2022 Silage for Beef Cattle Conference (…). The gathering was sponsored by University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Extension, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Iowa Beef Center and Lallemand Animal Nutrition.


Small grains as forage has many advantages, according to Daren Redfearn, UNL Extension forage and crop residue specialist. These can include winter barley, spring barley, spring triticale, oats, cereal rye and wheat.

These small grains are easy to establish, grow rapidly and can be productive, he said. Small grains have the potential for high-quality forages as well as being economical.

Agronomic practices, as with any crop, will go a long way to produce a high-yielding crop. For small grains, planting dates are critical in how much yield can be seen later in the growing season, he said.

"This is the case because fall planting reduces not only fall forage production, but also spring forage production," Redfearn said.

A UNL study from south-central Nebraska looked at cereal rye forage production planted from Oct. 2 to Oct. 21. Fall forage production decreased from about 1,000 lbs. of forage per acre when planted Oct. 2 to less than 500 lbs. of forage per acre when planted three weeks later on Oct. 21.

This trend was in place the next spring as harvest neared. In mid-April with rye near the boot stage, forage production was 6,500 lbs. forage per acre when planted on Oct. 2. Rye planted on Oct. 21 was only at about 3,500 lbs. of forage per acre.

Redfearn said spring forage production of cereal rye decreased more than 150 lbs. of forage per acre for each day of lost growth.


The ideal planting time for small grains in the Western Corn Belt as a late-spring-harvested forage crop is between Sept. 1 and Oct. 1, he said. The ideal planting time for spring-seeded, small grains is between March 15 and April 1. If conditions are wet and cold, planting could be delayed until early April.

The seeding cost for small grains has increased, especially when considering seed cost as well as fertilization, but compared to other crops, small grains seeding costs are still fairly economical.

The cost of seed can range from $40 to $50 per acre. Nitrogen fertilizer and application cost might be $40 to $60 per acre, so the total cost of establishing a small grain forage crop will likely run from $90 to $150 per acre.

Redfearn touched on historically high fertilizer prices and that these higher prices could add to the cost of growing small grains. When he estimated costs, urea was $850/ton, and he said the cost is probably higher now.

DTN retail fertilizer prices for the fourth week of March show the average urea price to be at $976/ton. This is an all-time high price in the DTN data set. (See DTN Retail Fertilizer Trends at….)

Despite significantly higher fertilizer prices, Redfearn added, producers need to think beyond cost per acre to optimize small-forage yields.


Producers who use small grains for silage also must consider when to harvest the crop. For many, it is a balancing act of getting as much yield as possible but also wanting high nutrient levels of the forage.

Mary Drewnoski, UNL beef systems specialist, said it is often up to the individual operation what the owners want out of small grains silage.

Some might want straight high yields and really don't care about quality, while for others, it may be the opposite. While some may want both, Drewnoski pointed out that producers can't have their cake and eat it too.

Often, it is an either-or proposition, but there can be middle ground if quality and yield are both important, she said.

The stages of small grains when harvest happens is generally in the boot, pollination, milk and soft dough stage. Harvesting at boot stage will get high-quality forage but lower yields, while harvesting at soft dough will see more tons but considerably lower quality.

"Producers often tell me their biggest challenge is harvesting at the stage they think the crop is in, because small grains work through stages very quickly," Drewnoski said. "You almost have to harvest at an earlier stage."


UNL researchers completed a study to help determine when the best time is to harvest small grains, Drewnoski said.

In a two-year study, researchers planted rye, triticale and wheat and harvested at the four different stages: boot, pollination, milk and soft dough. The nutrient quality and yield were then examined at all four times of harvest.

For a dry matter (DM) yield, triticale and rye outperformed wheat, she said. In terms of energy content, rye and wheat did not differ, and both were greater than triticale.

Drewnoski said that for those who want higher-quality forages, the study showed harvesting at pollination was a happy medium, producing higher yields without sacrificing too much nutritive value. For those who want to maximize yield, harvesting at soft dough stage is a better option.

"There is likely as much variation among varieties within a species as there is among species," she said. "Thus, selection should depend on quality and yield goals coupled with seed costs."

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Russ Quinn