Growing Small Grains in Virginia
Today, many Virginia farmers are choosing to grow their own grains in the face of rising food costs for themselves and their livestock. Barley, feed corn, grains, oilseeds, soybeans, and wheat all flourish in Virginia and with a steadily increasing demand for cereal crops across the world, the investment in growing grains quickly pays off. When managed properly, cereal crops provide for excellent and healthy grazing and high-quality silage or hay. Small grains have the potential to provide supplemental nutrition to livestock, as a hay crop while doubling as a winter cover, and as silage, and can also provide a farmer with a scavenger of residual nitrogen from fertilizer.
Grazing on Small Grains
Livestock farmers interested in growing grains should keep in mind that grazing should only occur once the plants are well-established and in their vegetative stage. Silage or hay harvest should occur only between flowing and early seed fill. Corn, on the other hand, is one of the few annual crops that provides quality forage after seed maturity. The high yields and high quality of corn oftentimes make it the first choice for silage production in Virginia.
Forage Potential of Virginia Small Grains
Though cool-season cereal crops form the backbone of many farms across Virginia, many farmers fail to take advantage of the tremendous forage potential these crops provide. Provided that farmers take a soil test to determine the land’s lime and fertilizer needs, Virginia farmers have had excellent results with high-quality small grain forage production. For those interested in growing cereals or for those who have established operations but don’t use their crops for forage, the following crops are well-adapted to Virginia, can be used as supplemental nutrition for livestock through grazing, and can easily be worked into their forage production system:
Wheat is an incredibly versatile cereal crop with excellent winter hardiness and good potential for silage, pasture, or hay production. Because it can be sown later in the fall than barley, it is a good choice for planting following a soybean or corn harvest. Wheat is also a smart choice for sites with less than ideal drainage as it can withstand wetter soils than barley or oats. Tall wheat varieties have immense forage potential when planted earlier than normal and at a higher seeding rate. Planting wheat earlier also increases the potential for the crops to recover from residual nitrogen from the previous summer crop. If managed properly, farmers can allow livestock to graze on wheat in the fall and again in the early spring, then harvest it for hay or silage.
Barley produces excellent quality silage and hay, but at lower yields than other small grains. Barley tends to be more difficult to grow than wheat because of it isn’t as cold hardy and because of its sensitivity to acidic soil conditions. On fertile, well-drained soils, the barley quality is excellent, and its ability to thrive in sandy soils makes it popular in eastern Virginia where it can be difficult to grow other small grains.
Triticale, a cross between rye and wheat, is gaining popularity throughout the country as a forage crop because of its high forage yield. It is tolerant of acidic soil conditions and well-adapted to a range of soils, including sandy soils.
Rye is probably the most tolerant of the small grains, growing well in cold conditions and a variety of soils. Like wheat, rye can be used to provide excellent fall grazing, good winter ground cover, then excellent grazing again in early spring. Rye produces good quality silage much earlier than other cereal grains, and because of its rapid growth, it si the most productive of the small grains for pasture.
Winter oats, though less cold-hardy than common wheat and barley varieties, survive most winters in Virginia and produce high forage yields. Winter oats also produce a high-quality silage though yields are lower than with other small grains. Extremely dry or wet conditions can hurt yields as winter oats are best adapted to well-drained clay and sandy loam soils.