Pros and Cons of Fall-planting Winter and Spring Small Grains

Pros and Cons of Fall-planting Winter and Spring Small Grains

Cereal rye has slow fall growth, but it can be a superb spring forage. Photo credit Troy Walz.

Using small grains as a dependable fall or spring forage source will depend on several factors, including production potential based on planting date, availability of moisture and adequate fertility, season of production, and winterhardiness. All small grains can produce forage, so the options are:

  • Only fall forage production from oats, spring triticale, and/or spring barley.
  • Mainly spring production is from cereal rye, winter triticale, and/or winter barley.
  • A combination of fall and spring production from mixtures of spring small grains (oats, spring triticale, or spring barley) and winter small grains (cereal rye, winter triticale, or winter barley).

Not all small grain species are equal when it comes to fall and spring forage production (Table 1). Not surprisingly, small grain fall and spring forage yields are usually greater in eastern and central Nebraska than the Panhandle. Expected forage yields for the eastern half of Nebraska are commonly within the upper range of expected forage yields with the western half of Nebraska generally within the lower range. Also, dry conditions and unusually early or late freezes will limit forage production regardless of the region. However, there are a few things that we can expect with some regularity.

  • Oats will not survive the winter in the central and northern Great Plains.
  • It is hard to beat oats for fall forage production.
  • Cereal rye has slow fall growth, but it can be a superb spring forage.
  • Occasionally triticale or barley or wheat will be better than oats or cereal rye.


Expected forage production from non-winter hardy and winter hardy small grains planted in fall and spring.
Table 1. Expected forage production from non-winter hardy and winter hardy small grains planted in fall and spring.

Planting date

Both spring and winter small grains planted in late summer and early fall have the potential to produce fall forage. If fall forage production is a primary management goal, the best option is to plant a spring (non-winter hardy) species, such as oats, spring triticale, or spring barley. Spring species and varieties of small grains have minimal or no cold tolerance and will not resume spring growth when planted in the fall. For winter-hardy species, like cereal rye, winter triticale, and winter barley, we know from multiple studies that the later the planting date in the fall, the less the growth and forage production in the fall with reduced forage production into the spring. This is especially true for cereal rye since it matures earlier in spring than the other small grain forages.

Fall forage

The planting date for fall-only small grain forage production should focus on spring small grains, since fall forage production from spring species is usually greater than winter hardy species. Oats or spring triticale or spring barley should be planted during early- to mid-August and no later than September 1. However, success of fall planting and the amount of forage production will vary annually based on the timely precipitation and extreme temperature fluctuations. This is often more prevalent in the Panhandle where dry late summer conditions and early freezes can limit germination and forage growth potential.

Oats is the most-planted small grain for fall forage. Oats are commonly classified as either “grain-type” or “forage-type” oats. This designation is related more to maturity and growth height, than intended use. The grain-type oat varieties are usually early- to medium maturity with a short to medium plant height. The forage-type oats are usually medium- to late-maturing varieties that are tall at maturity.

In most of Nebraska, early-maturing, fall-planted oats may have a long enough growing season to produce a small amount of grain when planted around August 1. Late-maturing forage oats usually do not have a long enough growing season to produce a seedhead. Forage yield will be similar for both types but forage nutritional value will likely be greater in the later maturing, taller forage types. With a later planting date after mid- to late-August, neither type will produce seedheads, and nutritional value will be similar.

Typically, 40 to 60 days of growth is needed to produce enough forage for fall grazing. With adequate moisture, fall grazing can usually begin as early as October when planted by mid-August. Grazing can be delayed until late October or early November to allow for increased forage production without loss of nutritional value. Season of growth and plant maturity are more important factors than species for most small grain forages grown during the fall. The nutritional value of small grain forages planted from mid-August through early September is high with total digestible nutrients (TDN) ranging from 70 to 80%. Crude protein (CP) will vary from 10 to 20% depending on the amount of N available for plant uptake. This forage is high quality and can result in growing calf gains of 1.3 to 2.4 lbs./day or can be used to meet the needs of fall calving cows during peak lactation.

Spring forage

After October 1, winter-hardy small grains are the best option, but appreciable forage growth will be restricted to spring only. Cereal rye planted in late-summer or early fall is the best choice for the earliest possible spring grazing. The major disadvantage to cereal rye is that once it begins spring growth, it matures very quickly and forage nutritional value rapidly declines, if proper grazing management is not used. See the article “Getting the Most Out of Grazing Cereal Rye and Other Winter-hardy Small Cereals” for grazing management tips.

Most cereal rye cultivars will survive winters in the central and northern Great Plains, regardless of whether they are classified as a “northern type” or a “southern type.” Northern-type cereal rye cultivars are very winter hardy with longer winter dormant periods than the southern types. Southern types can have longer growth from fall into the winter and are often the first of the small grains to begin growth the following spring. Expected spring production usually provides 2 to 3 tons of forage per acre.

Small grain forages grazed during the spring can have variable nutritional value. However, these differences are more easily attributed to maturity differences between the small grains. During spring growth, the nutritional value of many small grain forages declines rapidly. When small grain forages are in the boot stage, TDN ranges from 70 to 80%. However, by the early dough stage, TDN decreases to 50 to 60% with CP around 8 to 12%.

Fall and spring forage

The window between August 15 and September 15th is most ideal for planting forage mixtures. First, research suggests that total forage yield does not seem to be improved by planting these mixes. See the article “Mixed Seeding of Winter and Non Winter-Hardy Annual Forages“ for a comparison of forage yield from monocultures and mixtures. However, the main advantage is that distribution of forage yield allows for both fall and spring grazing. Planting simple mixtures of two or more winter and spring small grain species and varieties in late summer may increase the chance of producing both fall and spring grazing. One example is a mixture that includes both oats and cereal rye. Using this method, oats will provide most of the forage during the fall. It will winterkill, then the cereal rye will provide early spring grazing.



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