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Which Small Grains Work Best in Dairy Systems?

Maureen Hanson


April 13, 2021



Incorporating small grains as a partial or full alternative to alfalfa is gaining popularity among dairy producers.


Southwest Wisconsin organic dairy producer Josh Tranel said switching from strictly alfalfa to cereal grains allows his 600-cow, 2,000-acre family operation to grow roughly 50% more forage tonnage annually on the same number of acres.


Using various small grains as cover and nurse crops also reduces soil erosion and nutrient loss; allows the farm to utilize a longer growing season; and creates more opportunity throughout the year to hose-applicate liquid manure.


On a recent Iowa State University webinar, Tranel described the pros and cons of the forages his family grows, and how each fit into their dairy’s overall cropping and feeding system:

  • Winter wheat – With lower potassium uptake compared to other crops, winter wheat is the only spring forage the dairy feeds its dry cows. Tranel said its bulky, low-energy properties promote excellent rumen activity. “Winter wheat is slow to mature, so the harvest windows are wider compared to a crop like rye,” said Tranel. “It is a useful crop to follow a weak alfalfa stand or early harvested corn silage, but it needs to be planted early in the fall, because good stand establishment depends on fall root tillering.”


  • Oats – Tranel likes oats for their quick and easy establishment any time of the year. “If we need to grow some forage quickly before winter, oats are often our best option,” he shared. They also work well as a nurse crop for alfalfa or perennial grass plantings, and to patch in areas of overrun pasture. However, oats are not winter hardy, and have limited yield potential compared to other small grains.


  • Triticale – A favorite of the Tranels, triticale can be planted in the fall or spring. When harvested at boot to late-boot stage, it can make an excellent lactating-ration ingredient, sometimes even replacing corn silage entirely in the TMR. It has high NDF and protein values, and triticale also is highly palatable. Tranel said over-wintered triticale can produce excellent yields, but this will be highly dependent on whether its roots have enough time to establish in the fall. They also use it as a nurse crop for new alfalfa seedings.


  • Winter rye – A super-hardy crop, winter rye forms an excellent sod base with outstanding weed suppression. “If you get it in the ground, it will grow,” said Tranel, who recalled once sowing winter rye after Christmas. It will be ready to graze in the spring, with good yield potential. For the Tranels, the downside of winter rye is that it is difficult to kill without chemical intervention.


  • Sorghum or sorghum-Sudan grass – This summer annual forage crop has high yield potential for excellent-quality feed. “It will outcompete weeds and will grow as fast as 4 inches a day in 95-degree heat,” said Tranel. “The downside is you sometimes lose quality in that rapid growth, and it will stall out in cool, wet weather. It likes dry feet and hot summers.” The Tranels use it to break up corn-on-corn rotations, as a nurse crop for fall-seeded alfalfa, and have no-tilled it into winter wheat and weak alfalfa stands.

Additionally, Tranel said they have achieved excellent tonnage from summer forage “cocktail mixes” of sorghum, sudan grass, clover, and annual grasses.


“There’s no one small grain crop that fits the bill for everything, but collectively they offer a lot of options and flexibility,” advised Tranel. “Your cropping decisions can be adjusted depending on weather and field conditions, and what your overall goals are.”


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