Cutting wheat silage

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wheat field, Lake Erie, water quality,
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

By Taylor Dill | OSU Extension Darke County

Wheat throughout the state of Ohio has made a nice turnaround this spring, with many stands looking poor because of a wet fall. After our top dress applications, however, our crop has improved. 

Here in Darke County, we are into boot stage or Feekes 10 this week. In this stage, small grains can start to be chopped for hay or silage. 

Wheat silage is produced throughout the country from Ohio to Texas, and there are many benefits of having a small grain silage in the rotation. 

Wheat can be both a cover crop or a fall pasture if needed and can be successfully grown throughout Ohio. This option provides a provisional forage when hay or silage is running out in the summer. 

Adding wheat silage to a grain ration can keep milk production high. And chopping wheat earlier provides a better opportunity for successful double-cropping than taking the plant to grain. The window for chopping small grains is between boot and dough stage. 

Pros and cons

There are pros and cons of cutting silages at different timings. Once we achieve boot stage, the crude there is still about 20% crude protein, which continues to decline rapidly after early heading, while NDF at boot stage continues to increase from 52% to 68% into late heading but declines back down to 60 in the milk stage. 

Continuing to let the plant grow to dough stages also lets the crop produce more tons/acre, but as wheat gets into late heading, the net energy lactation decreases to 46 therms from the 76 therms available at boot stage. 

Timing

As the plant ages, it loses protein and net energy lactation but increases in tons/acre and NDF. So, when do we chop our small grains for hay? This depends on the animal you are feeding. 

For lactating dairy cattle, chopping at boot stage and up to early head is best. The nutrient value at this timing is comparable to corn silage and improved energy content in comparisons to many other hays. These stages contain 68-76 therms per 100 pounds and a crude protein between 15% and 21%. 

Wheat silage is a competitive option for lactating dairy cattle at these stages. If you are feeding heifers, then cutting between heading and milk stages would be sufficient and milk to dough stage for dry cow feeds. 

According to research done in Nebraska, at late boot stage, wheat could accrue 12 tons/acre at 18% protein and 69% total digestible nutrients and at dough stage/early grain fill, wheat produced 20 tons/acre at 10% protein and 60% total digestible nutrients. 

Moisture content

Some arguments can be made for cutting at later stages, such as an increased tonnage, but also the moisture content. Cutting at the dough stage can leave the plant at about 76-78% moisture and can lose 5% after windrowing and transportation. The moisture needed for packing is between 70-72%. 

When the moisture content is below 67%, the silage is too fluffy, and above 72%, it will be prone to oxidizing; above 78%, nutrient losses can occur as the moisture drains from the pile. 

Therefore, when cutting at earlier stages, being aware of the moisture is important for proper ensiling. Harvesting quickly is also integral for preserving the quality of the silage. 

If your goal is a high quality silage, cutting at boot stage will give the highest quality, but if tonnage is your goal, consider waiting until milk or soft dough stage.

(Taylor Dill is an agriculture and natural resources educator with OSU Extension Darke County who can be reached at dill.138@osu.edu or 937-548-5215.)

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