Using Cereals for Feed During a Drought

Running a beef cattle operation in a drought situation poses many challenges to producers, including the question of sufficient pasture for summer, and sufficient feed for winter. The use of cereals may be the answer.

Barley or oats are the best options for greenfeed that will be baled or swath grazed. Precipitation during the growing season will determine the best yield. If it is dry, barley will probably produce the largest volume of feed. Oats perform best in years that have good precipitation. Oats can also be seeded deeper into moisture than wheat or barley. An emergency seeding of oats into a summerfallow field could be a last minute winter feed strategy this summer. In some cases, peas can be mixed with the cereals for greenfeed. This has increased the protein content of the forages harvested but, in most cases, has not increased the volume of feed produced. Cutting an annual at the soft dough stage will provide the greatest volume of material with a reasonable quality.

Grazing uses can be split into season of use. For late spring and early summer grazing, spring cereals such as triticale, barley and oats work well. Grazing can start in about six weeks or when the crop is between six inches high (when the ground is fully covered) and in the flag leaf stage.

Spring cereals must be continually grazed to keep them in a vegetative state. Cross fencing into small pastures decreases trampling. Electric fencing is affordable, easy to move and quickly set up. Rotate fields using a stock densities of at least two animals per acre. Allow the animals to graze off about 50 per cent of the plant material (or when the seed rows are visible), and then move to another pasture until regrowth has occurred, then return to the same pasture. You will need the ability to split the field into at least two or three smaller pastures to control this grazing and growth. If the field gets ahead of you, swathe the field at the soft dough stage.

Spring-seeded winter cereals such as rye, winter wheat or winter triticale work well, but normally will have to grow for seven to nine weeks (six inches high) before being grazed. With seeding dates of late May or early June, these crops would be suited to providing grazing in late July, August and September. Spring-seeded fall and winter cereals are easier to manage, as they are not going to try and develop seed heads during the first summer of growth. Only five per cent of the plants may try to go to seed. Production drops in the autumn as daytime temperature drops. Under good conditions with spring-seeded fall rye, you could also expect to get some grazing the following spring. Production from annual crops is always very dependent on growing season precipitation.

In the work done at the Semi-arid Prairie Agriculture Research Centre (SPARC) in Swift Current, the carrying capacity ranged from 1.2 to two animal unit months per acre. Some other areas have reported higher capacities than this. A 160-acre field at 1.2 animal unit months per acre with 1,200-pound cows would have capacity for 160 animal unit months, or 53 cows for a three-month period. This three-month period would be difficult to achieve without having two different types of annuals planted, and good management of the rotational grazing. As a result, it may be easier to manage by having a larger number of cows on the field for a shorter period.

Seeding rates will vary depending on your soil zone. Here is a general guide.

Seeding Rates (bushels per acre)

  • Grazing: 1.5
  • Greenfeed: 2
  • Mixture 1:
    • 1 - cereal
    • 1 - pea
  • Mixture 2:
    • 1 1/4 - fall cereal
    • 1/3 to 1/2 - spring cereal (barley)

Fall cereals can be mixed with a spring cereal, such as barley. The barley germinates quickly and provides some early cover and grazing until the slower winter cereals come on. Fertilizer rates are similar to those used for a grain crop. Nitrate poisoning could occur if high rates of fertilizer are used and a stress like drought or a hailstorm occurred. There would be a minimal need for weed control in most cases. You may wish to spray for control of broadleaf weeds, but closely watch herbicide labels for restrictions if doing this. Annual cereals can be an excellent way of taking pressure off existing grazing paddocks, or as insurance for your hay crop.

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