Wheat Forage Options and Considerations

Windrowing forage wheat in south central Nebraska for processing into wheatlage. (Photos by Todd Whitney)
Figure 1. Cutting and windrowing forage wheat in south central Nebraska for processing into wheatlage. (Photos by Todd Whitney)

Wheat Forage Options and Considerations May 17, 2018

This spring many Nebraska livestock producers facing low forage supplies may be looking for alternative feed sources. Slow spring pasture growth, delayed planting, limited cover crop production, and reduced cool-season plant growth are contributing to reduced forage supplies. Given current low wheat prices, some growers are strongly considering harvesting their wheat early for forage and saving forage replacement costs. 

Wheat forage options can include haying or wheatlage. With haying, it’s best to harvest in the late boot stage before heading, particularly if the wheat is not an awnless variety. With wheatlage the challenge is that while the need may be pressing, delaying harvest until wheat is at the soft-dough kernel stage may provide greater quantity and quality. Almost all wheat/triticale/rye fields are also behind normal growth stage this spring. Harvesting for haylage in the next couple of weeks likely will provide dramatically lower field tonnage (biomass) compared to waiting until wheat is at the soft-dough kernel development growth stage.

Moisture content also may affect harvest timing and is critical to successful ensiling. Moisture content can drop quickly as plants develop from the milk to the late dough stage. If dry soils develop, the soft dough stage may be drier than usual, perhaps even too dry to make good silage. Monitor plant moisture to help plan for harvest.  

For many southcentral Nebraska feedlot/field managers, harvesting wheat for forage in the spring is not new. The most popular wheat forage harvest method used in south central Nebraska is “wheatlage.” As the name implies, this method is similar to traditional corn silage harvest. Wheat, oats, triticale, or rye fields are first windrowed, then chopped and blown into transport trucks. The trucks then transfer the forage to a bunker storage where heavy implements pack the pile to reduce air content between forage pieces. Tight packing is essential to successful wheatlage production.

Research Comparing Wheatlage Harvest Dates

This year there is increased pressure for an early spring forage harvest due to slow plant growth during a record cool April and higher cattle feeding numbers. However, results from a replicated two-year Nebraska Extension irrigated wheat study north of Bertrand in south central Nebraska may encourage producers to patiently delay their wheat forage harvest. Based on the 2016 and 2017 growing seasons, average wheat plant height and dry matter biomass doubled in just six weeks from late April to early June (Table 1).

Although 2018 forage production will likely be much lower compared to the previous two years, there could be a significant increase in wheat forage production by delaying forage harvest into mid-June. Although total crude protein and TDN (total digestible nutrients) production increased proportionally to dry matter yield increases, percent crude protein content decreased as wheat maturity progressed (Table 1).

Table 1. Average yields in an irrigated wheat forage trial conducted in south central Nebraska in 2016-2017.
Harvest DateGrowth StagePlant Height
(inches)
Yield
(tons/acre)
Crude
Protein
Total
Digestible
Nutrients
Late April Flag leaf development 22 10 21% 70%
Early May Late boot 29 12 18% 69%
Early June Soft dough/Early grain fill 42 20 10% 60%

Wheatlage Tips

According to Gary Robison, custom forage harvesting business manager near Bertrand, keeping air out of the pile and covering the bunker of forage silage immediately after filling the storage are critical to prevent oxidizing. Unlike corn silage, if the wheatlage pile is not covered quickly after packing, the forage may turn an oxidized black color. Although the nutritional content may still be good, oxidized wheatlage may result in reduced livestock consumption. To reduce oxidation throughout storage, quickly recover the bunker after wheatlage is transferred to mixer trucks or daily forage feed is removed.

Robison Farms prefers to harvest spring cool-season forages such as wheat, oats, triticale, and rye when the forage reaches the soft-dough grain stage. At this stage plant moisture will be 76-78%. During the harvest process, from windrowing through being blown into the truck and transported to the bunker, moisture will drop about 5%. Forage at this moisture level, 70-72%, is ready for packing. If the moisture falls below 67%, the wheatlage will be too fluffy and difficult to pack tightly. Conversely, if the silage moisture content is above 72%, it will be prone to oxidizing. Wet wheatlage, above 78% moisture, will likely result in extreme losses as the nutrient dense water drains from the bunker pile.

Blowing wheatlage into a truck
Figure 2. Blowing cut and windrowed wheat into a truck for storage can shave 5% off the  soil moisture content at harvest.

Wheatlage Production Considerations

In south central Nebraska the most popular forage wheat varieties have been Willow Creek (an awnless variety bred by Montana State) and Wesley (Nebraska bred from Husker Genetics). Awnless versus awned (bearded) wheat head varieties usually are not an issue since the forage is chopped; however, this might be an important consideration if the wheat forage is harvested as hay after the wheat is fully headed.

Beyond disease and insect resistance ratings, straw strength and lodging resistance are the most important factors when it comes to variety selection for wheatlage production. Other wheat varieties with good to excellent straw strength ratings include: AgriPro PostRock; Westbred 143; SY Wolf; SY Flint; Westbred Cedar; and Westbred Winterhawk.

Irrigated seeding rates for forage wheat in Nebraska range from 1,000,000 to 2,500,000 seeds per acre. For south-central Nebraska, the recommended rate is 1,750,000 to 2,000,000 seeds per acre to increase potential forage yields while lowering lodging.

Additional Considerations

Triticale, a cross between wheat and rye, is popular in Kansas due to forage production that’s higher than wheat; however, in central Nebraska triticale has traditionally lodged  just prior to wheatlage harvest, making wheat the preferred choice for an irrigated cool-season forage. Similarly, rye has a long, hollow stem making it more difficult than wheat to chop for silage. Further, rye yields in south central Nebraska from lower population cover crop fields have usually been less than 12-13 tons per acre. The higher wheat forage yields have likely been due to higher leaf-to-stem ratios and thicker stands compared to rye.

Wrapped forage bales also have been gaining popularity in central Nebraska. Usually, the forage bales are wrapped when the forage reaches 45-50% moisture content. The downside to the ryelage or bale wraps is potentially higher feeding losses if tub grinding is not an option.

Conclusion

If harvesting wheat for wheatlage, consider waiting until it reaches soft-dough for increased biomass.

Resources

More information on forage options and economics are available from Nebraska Extension offices and the CropWatch.unl.edu and Beef.unl.edu websites.