The versatility and resilience of winter cereal crops has seen them increase in popularity with dairy farmers. This is because they can help clean paddocks or allow earlier sowing of summer crops, besides being a good silage option.
Choosing the right winter cereal crop
Low-rainfall dairy farming regions – with average falls of between 450mm and 600mm – show high potential for growing winter cereals as perennial ryegrass is not as persistent. Winter cereals may also be grown effectively on run-off or lease blocks before they are harvested and used on the milking platform.
Winter cereals can be grazed over during winter before being cut for silage in early spring. This extra feed source is valuable for farmers wanting to diversify their feedbase. Winter cereals can also combine with summer crops as part of a double-crop rotation during a paddock renovation program to help manage weed problems, act as a break crop or allow the earlier sowing of summer crops.
Another benefit of winter cereals is that they can provide feed earlier than annual ryegrass because they are generally more adaptable to early sowing due to a higher tolerance of dry conditions. Winter cereals are also better suited to single-cut silage-making, whereas annual ryegrass requires multiple cuts or grazings to be fully utilised.
The nutritional value of winter cereals at tillering is similar to ryegrass but it drops during the later stages of growth. Maximum yields of cereals can only be obtained by single-cut silage making - with or without being grazed once during the early stages.
Ensuring adequate silage making and feeding practices is key to profitability. Compared to fully grazed annual ryegrass, the losses from harvest to feeding out cereal silage can considerably increase the cost per kilogram of feed consumed by the cows, particularly for whole crop silage cut at the late milk-soft dough stage.
Oats and barley are the most used winter cereals on dairy farms in southern Australia. Oats are typically sown in early autumn (moisture permitting) when they can establish at higher soil temperatures, while barley is sown later in autumn or in early winter at cooler soil temperatures.
Depending on the cereal and sowing time, it is possible to get two grazings and a silage crop from one winter cereal. Grazing should occur before growth stage 30 to prevent the growing point from being grazed off. Grazing after stem elongation (growth stage 30) can reduce silage yields by around 50 per cent. Alternatively, sowing blends of cereals and annual ryegrass may be a good option on farms with high autumn and winter feed demand.
In all cases, it is recommended to seek advice from a trusted agronomist or advisor on the most suitable sowing option. They will also be able to provide advice on best practice management in terms of seeding rates and methods, fertiliser applications as well as weed and pest control.
The ‘Winter cereals for silage’ fact sheet outlines the advantages and disadvantages of winter cereals over annual ryegrass. It also includes information on how winter cereals fit into a feed plan, sowing mixes and silage making tips. Top tips include:
- Nutritive value of cereal silage is generally not as good as annual ryegrass.
- Cereal can be grazed 1–2 times in early winter before lock-up for silage.
- Cereals are more water efficient than ryegrass.
- Cut cereal silage at boot stage to maximise quality.
The 'Fitting winter crops into your grazing system' fact sheet provides useful advice on integrating winter cereals into the feedbase. These include:
- To identify a suitable winter crop, you must know your monthly feed demand.
- Winter cereals generally provide quicker, early-autumn feed than ryegrass.
- Cereals are often more suited to areas with low autumn feed than ryegrass.
- Cereals can be a good risk management tool to diversify the feedbase.