When it comes to the quality of forage crops, winter wheat is as good as it gets.
That’s according to Dr. Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri professor of plant sciences and state Extension specialist for forage crops. Kallenbach told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor, “When it’s vegetative in autumn, and early spring as well, you’ll have crude protein values that often exceed 20 precent and you will have TDN (total digestible nutrient) values that are in excess of 65. In short, that’s a great feed, and stock do very well on it; we’ve had grazing animals on wheat as well as cereal rye pasture in experiments here at the University where we’ve had calves easily gain 2.0 lb/day, and often 2.5 lb/day, on strictly a diet of small grain pasture.”
Most producers who grow winter wheat for pasturage do not attempt to harvest the grain; to do so, they would have to remove the stock from the pasture before tillering occurs, usually around the second week of March in southern Missouri. If you instead keep cattle on the wheat through the early part of May, Kallanbach said, you can clean up the crop either with a grass herbicide like Roundup or by tilling it under. He added, “Sometimes people just no-till the next crop into it after it’s been grazed out or maybe, hayed or made into silage.”
In addition to the wheat seed varieties grown by crop farmers, Kallenbach said there are grazing types on the market; pasture owners can also get inexpensive seed that’s been run once through the cleaner. Dr. John Jennings, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service animal science professor and forage specialist, told OFN another option is to purchase seed saved by a crop farmer. He said following the last couple of droughty years, many cattle producers planted wheat and other cereal grains as a forage substitute for the lack of cool-season grass in the fall.
“Winter wheat is very complementary to warm-season type grass pastures like bermudagrass or bahiagrass,” Jennings said. “The warm-season grasses quit growing when the nighttime temperatures drop below 50 degrees, which typically happens around late September; if there’s no forage accumulated there, those pastures are done for the year. But if farmers manage it right, they can have some accumulated bermudagrass to graze, and can take some other pastures that have been grazed short, and no-till in wheat.” He said the wheat will grow quickly in a short-grazed or tilled pasture, and can provide grazing during the winter months as an alternative to feeding hay.
When spring comes the wheat will try to mature, but if it’s been grazed down there won’t be much leaf or stalk left; if it’s been planted into bermudagrass, the grass will emerge through what’s left of the canopy and will take over the field. Although weed control and diseases are not big issues for wheat planted as a forage crop, until the first frost, armyworms can be. “Last year we saw that as a really serious problem,” Jennings reported. “A lot of those fields that were planted with small grain were the only green fields in the whole area and when the wave of armyworms moths came through, that’s what they keyed in on to lay their eggs.”
Jennings said producers have no choice but to use insecticides; if the insects come through when the wheat is just emerging and take out the single leaf, there’ll be nothing left to regrow. Control is not expensive; there are generic insecticides that cost under $3 an acre. “But they have to be paying attention,” he added, “because armyworms can go through a field quite quickly.”
Kallenbach added one footnote – if you’re thinking of using cereal grains as a forage, rye is a better option than wheat. “It doesn’t really have the option of going all the way to grain,” he said, “but it produces about twice as much pasture as does wheat and it can grow at lower temperatures.”


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