Posted by Travis Meteer

Abnormally cool spring weather has not only slowed pasture growth, but also changed the growth curve of cereal rye. I have fielded several calls pertaining to best harvest methods and potential feed value of stunted cereal rye. One main point I immediately share with farmers is there is still feed value in the crop when harvested timely, but obviously yields will be lower due to this year’s long winter. Here are a few questions and answers.

When is the ideal time to harvest cereal rye?

Late boot stage. Cereal rye matures quickly, thus the ideal time to harvest may be only a one week window. Height of the plant is not a good indicator of harvest time. This year cereal rye is maturing at much smaller heights than previous years.

What is the best harvest method?

If your stand is weak and the forage height doesn’t justify the cost of mechanical harvest, grazing is a harvest option. Using a higher stocking rate will quickly remove the forage to help ensure timely planting of a cash crop. However, if wet weather ensues, cattle can end up trampling a lot of the forage and temporary compaction issues may result. So, it is important to manage a grazing situation closely. Ideally, grazing should have already occurred if that was the best method of harvest.

At this point, grazing is a less viable option for timely removal of the forage. Thus, mechanical harvest is the go-to. I would suggest chopping the forage. This will help the forage pack and ensile. It also reduces the particle size and makes the forage more palatable at feed-out.

Wet baling is a good option. I prefer wet baling over dry baling because of the ability to harvest at higher moisture in a smaller window of time. When properly done, wet baling can result in a very high quality, palatable feed. However, if you wait until the rye is over-mature, bales will be coarse, stemmy, and it is harder to remove air pockets to achieve proper fermentation. These factors reduce palatability at feed-out and reduce the quality of the feed. A baler with knives can help this problem, but may not completely solve it.

Dry baling requires a longer harvest window and may be challenging with spring weather patterns. Moisture may vary in the field and in the windrow. This often causes uneven bale moisture and leads to problems in bales that are too wet. Bales that are too wet for dry hay are susceptible to molding and fire risk. Be careful trying to dry bale. It is hard to achieve complete dry down of heavy stands of cereal rye. Wrapping bales that are between 20-40% moisture is not an alternative. Bales at these moisture levels will not ensile properly and could propagate dangerous bacteria like Listeria and Clostridiums. These bacteria can cause health problems and even death to cattle at certain concentrations.

What is the target moisture at harvest for chopping or wet-baling?

Target 50% moisture with an acceptable range of 40-60% for baleage. For chopped forages, I would recommend being on the higher end of the range. With a target of 55-60% moisture.

Should I use inoculant?

Yes. Inoculant will help add bacteria favorable to proper fermentation. If plant sugars are low, which is common in over-mature cereal grains or rained-on hay, a supplemental source of sugar may be beneficial to achieving fermentation. Mowing forages in the afternoon on sunny days helps increase plant sugar levels.

What kind of feed value will it be?

Feed value will vary. As forages mature, tonnage will increase and feed quality will decline. Cereal rye that is in full head will likely test 8-10% CP and in the low 50s for TDN. It is important to note, when taken at the ideal harvest time cereal rye can test in the low teens for CP and around 58-62 for TDN. This year will be different than recent years, so… as always, sample your forage and run a nutrient analysis before feeding.

If I elect not to harvest as forage, what can I do to still be able to plant cash crop?

Everyone needs an exit strategy. If at some point you determine making feed from cereal rye is no longer cost effective, you have a few options for termination. Chemical termination is one. Spraying the stand of cereal rye with Glyphosate or Paraquat Dichloride can terminate the stand. Consult your chemical rep or Extension agronomist for rates and application best management practices.

Rolling with a crimper can be a termination method. This method is gaining traction with several farmers, but does require some specialized equipment and knowledge of the process.

I think it is very important to consider the following cash crop. Soybeans seem to allow more flexibility. They will tolerate larger residue amounts better than corn. If corn is the desired cash crop following rye, the forage is best removed and some starter fertilizer is likely needed. Allelopathy, the release of chemicals from one plant negatively impacting growth of a neighboring plant, can be a concern in corn following cereal rye.

Source: University of Illinois extension