Tips to help producers manage wheat as a forage
Quite a few Hoosier producers planted winter wheat to be used as a forage through emergency provisions within the Environmental Quality Incentive Program and may not be familiar with managing the crop as a forage, said a Purdue University expert.
Producers may choose to let their animals graze the wheat pastures, mow it for hay or mow it and make silage, explained Keith Johnson, Purdue Extension forage specialist and David Redman, a Purdue Extension educator in Lawrence County.
Producers who intend to graze their livestock on the wheat pasture, should avoid doing so on wet soils, said Johnson. It’s important to make sure the soil is capable of withstanding animal traffic to avoid soil compaction and excessive damage to the wheat plant.
In addition to not grazing on wet soils, livestock fed wheat should be on a magnesium-containing supplement, Johnson explained. Wheat and other small grain forages like triticale and rye can be low in magnesium and can cause grass tetany, a disorder that causes instability and seizures.
Johnson also points out that as the wheat plant matures it increases in dry matter yield, but decreases in forage quality.
“Producers need to be extremely observant of this crop in its maturity and value,” he said. “There will be another crop to follow so do not let the want for a higher wheat forage yield delay the planting of the major crop you intend to follow up with.”
For producers who want to harvest and store the wheat forage, Redman said they should follow the same fertilization practices as if you were to graze it.
“Make sure the pH levels are up and the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels are in balance,” he said. “It’s also important to review the label of any pesticide used for the harvest restriction time.”
Wheat has increased protein content and digestibility at the boot stage, right before heading, and that is a good indication it’s time to start mowing hay, Redman said.
One of the challenges in harvesting wheat for hay is the amount of time it takes to dry.
“Wheat has fairly large stems and leaves which makes it very difficult to dry,” Redman said. “Ideally you would like to see it dried down to less than 20 percent moisture when packaged as hay.
“Wheat forage harvested with a mower conditioner will need about four to five days of drying time. Producers may need to ted or fluff the wheat to help it dry out as quickly as possible.”
Harvesting the wheat for hay isn’t the only method producers have available to them. Wheat also can be harvested as traditional chopped silage or as bale silage.
“To make bale silage, producers should mow the wheat and let it dry down to only about 45 percent to 55 percent moisture,” Redman said. “The wheat is baled while it’s still wet and then wrapped in air tight plastic, which allows the wheat to go through the ensiling process.”
Redman cautions producers to be careful what they use to tie the bales with.
“If the bales are tied with treated string, it may react with the plastic wrap and develop holes that allow air and moisture to get into the bale and cause it to rot,” he said. “Use non-treated twine or plastic wrap to make your wheat bales.”
Once the wheat is harvested and baled, producers may wonder how to feed it. Because wheat maturity, weather conditions and soil type all play a role in forage quality, Redman recommends having a forage test done to help develop a balanced ration.