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Benefits of Annual Forages

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By  Jeremiah Vardiman, University of Wyoming Extension

Annual cereal forage crops are receiving new interest and use by forage producers, especially in Montana. 

Why should forage producers consider cereal forages in their cropping system? 

Incorporating a cereal forage into a forage operation can provide certain benefits, such as crop flexibility, field improvements, forage yield during off years, and probably most important, breaking pest cycles affecting perennial forage production. 

Wheat, oat and rye were utilized on large acreages in the early 1900s prior to power farm implements, according to Montana State University’s Forage Program. After power farm implements, cereal forages were used at low levels for five decades. Starting in the early 2000s, Montana producers have been planting around 300,000 acres of cereal forages per year. Interest and use of cereal forages are also increasing in Wyoming and North Dakota. 

Cereal forages are divided into three distinct categories: Winter cereals including wheat, barley, triticale and spelt, spring cereals including barley, oat, triticale, wheat and emmer and warm season crops including millet, sundangrass, sorghum and corn. All are annual crops.

Montana research indicates winter cereals are consistently more productive than spring cereals. However, spring cereals, predominantly barley, are slightly higher in forage quality and are typically utilized more. In dryland production, winter cereals tend to capitalize on winter and spring moisture better than spring cereals, which lends to them being consistently more productive.

 Winter cereals usually reach harvest maturity 10 to 21 days ahead of spring cereals.

Cereal forage crops provide flexibility in a crop rotation with only one year of production that can be utilized for hay, silage or a grazing operation. This allows for field improvements, such as leveling and balancing soil fertility to occur at least twice – prior to and after the cereal crop – before moving back into a perennial forage. 

Forage cereals also provide decent forage production, one to three tons per acre dryland hay and three to four tons per acre irrigated hay, during the off-year when perennial forage fields are being renovated. Cereal forages, in particular winter wheat and spring barley, have found a great niche in renovating old alfalfa hay fields. 

Typically, awnless forage varieties are the most desirable for forage production because unlike awned grain varieties, awnless mitigates the concern of abscesses and injury when fed to livestock. In addition, forage varieties can be grown to a later maturity date than grain varieties, which increases the forage quality. Developmental harvest stages are targeted for four days after heading for grain varieties and 10 days after heading for forage varieties. 

Research in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming indicate hooded awnless spring barley varieties Haybet, Hays, Westford, Bestford and Stockford, produced good yields, between three and four tons per acre on irrigated fields. 

The popular winter wheat variety Willow Creek has averaged 2.5 tons per acre, range was 1.25 to 3.1 tons per acre on dryland, along with good forage quality at 14 percent crude protein in research trials in Montana and Wyoming. 

The potential for accumulated nitrates, which can reach toxic levels for livestock, is a major concern when raising cereals for forage. Feeding forages with high nitrate levels, 5,000 ppm or greater, can cause abortions and death in cattle and sheep. Nitrate concentrations are typically higher in vegetative growth and decreases as the crop develops in maturity. 

Research from Montana has found oats are consistently higher in nitrates than other cereal forages. This same research demonstrated nitrate levels decreased significantly from the boot stage to the milk stage of development. 

This shows the importance of harvest timing to the correct developmental stage to achieve the highest yield and quality of cereal forage, while also producing a safe forage for livestock. 

Nitrate accumulation can also occur during stressful growing conditions, such as drought or frost, no matter the developmental stage. Nitrate accumulations could also occur in fields that have high or excess nitrates in the soil because of a previous alfalfa stand or heavy fertilization. The worst scenario for lethal nitrate levels would be the combination of growing cereal forages in a high nitrate soil compounded by stressful conditions and early harvest timing. 

Whether purchasing or growing cereal forages, make sure to have the forage tested for nitrate levels to assure their safety. When cereal forages are properly managed, they can be a good yielding and quality forage that allows flexibility in crop rotations, improvements to the field and getting a handle on pest pressures. 

                  Jeremiah Vardiman is a University of Wyoming agriculture and horticulture Extension Educator. He can be reached at

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