If you were able to get a small grain cover crop in early, chances are you’re seeing a fair amount of fall growth now. With forage tight this year, this new forage may be attractive, but do you know the cost of grazing now?
Small grains can be split into two groups, spring and winter species. Winter small grains can withstand cold temperatures after growing this fall, and then will initiate growth next spring. Species like rye, wheat, barley and triticale all have winter varieties. Spring grains on the other hand, are not winter hardy and will not survive the cold. Along with spring varieties of the previous species, we can add oats to the list of spring grains.
Why does this matter? When it comes to fall grazing, spring grains are the big producers. If maintained in a vegetative state, these plants are not trying to translocate energy to the roots to make it through winter, they just grow as much as possible and die. Because of this, quality is maintained and our best option is to get as much growth as possible before beginning grazing. Studies at UNL have shown oat-brassica mixtures maintaining high protein and energy quality well into January.
For winter small grains, the story is different. These plants are growing now and storing reserves in their roots to survive the winter and initiate growth again next spring.
While grazing potential exists, two things need to be considered. First, fall grazing will stop carbohydrate storage and may actually deplete reserves somewhat. This can slow spring green up and reduce overall production next spring. Second, these plants will drop in quality somewhat as temperatures get colder.
As energy is moved to the roots, the quality of above ground growth will decrease. So grazing quality will not be as high mid-winter as earlier in the year.
Small grains make a great fall forage options. Spring grains like oats maintain quality, so shoot for maximum growth before grazing. Winter grains on the other hand need to be grazed with care. Don’t over stress plants and risk yield loss next spring and be ready for a bit lower quality.