Management Changes make Small Grains worth Reconsidering
Doug Mayo, Jackson County Extension Director
Ann Blount, UF/IFAS Forage Breeder
David Wright, UF/IFAS Agronomist
In the past, farmers and ranchers in the Southeast recognized the value of small grains for cattle grazing in a diversified farming operation. In recent years, however, many farmers and ranchers have greatly reduced their use. Increased fertilizer costs, less dependable rainfall, seed costs, diseases, farming more acreage, lack of fencing, later peanut planting dates, and more specialized farming have limited the interest in growing small grains. There are several changes that have occurred, however, that make small grains worth reconsidering.
Cattle, as one segment of a diversified farming operation, have more value now. Cattle markets are at an all-time high, so rotation of cattle grazing with cotton, peanuts and other crops can be more profitable. The use of perennial grasses, like bahia, in rotation with crops provide a welcome relief to nematodes, weeds and diseases that plague peanuts and cotton in constant rotation. Crop yields are boosted by the pest reduction, but also by increased organic matter and nutrients recycled by grazing cattle. Because of their extensive root system, grasses also improve water infiltration into the soil. In drought years, this is of even greater benefit.
Small grain rotations do not provide the same benefit as two years of perennial grasses, but they do add some benefit in a crop rotation as well. Several area farmers have seen some benefits from grain cover crops in recent years, such as: improved soil moisture retention, palmer pigweed suppression, higher soil organic matter, and, ultimately, a boost in cotton yields. Recent data from the NFREC Crop Rotation Study showed that cotton fertilization requirements were also reduced, following cattle grazing small grains, because of the nutrient recycling in the root zone.
One of the big changes that make small grains a more viable option again is the potential for earlier peanut planting dates. Because of the predominance of tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV), peanuts needed to be planted in mid-May. With the successful release of TSWV resistant peanut varieties, planting peanuts in April is now a more viable option. This change makes it possible to once again plant small grains behind peanuts in October, instead of November, to get earlier grazing in January instead of mid-February. The longer days, enable the crops get off to a much faster start, as seen in the photos on the previous page.
Oats behind peanuts had been a favorite of many local farmers, but barley yellow dwarf virus, spread by aphids, has really hampered their productivity in the past decade. A somewhat new option has arisen that may provide a better alternative. Triticale is a hybrid of rye and wheat that is resistant to yellow dwarf virus, and is more cold tolerant than oats. Triticale does not mature as quickly as rye, but does mature faster than wheat, so it still could fit in a normal crop rotation. 50/50 blends of rye and triticale would offer an even longer season of growth for grazing than either by themselves.
With skyrocketing byproduct feed prices over $200 per ton, grazing cattle on small grains is once again worth reconsidering. Based on University of Georgia budgets, total costs for producing small grains is around $250 per acre. Newer rye and triticale varieties produce 3-4 tons of forage dry matter per acre behind peanuts, which translates to $60-80 per ton feed, that requires no troughs, feed wagons, or storage, with greatly reduced labor.
There are some challenges to overcome. One issue with growing small grains is unpredictable moisture at planting time. Gradually farmers in the area are making the investment in irrigation for their most productive fields. These irrigated fields would offer some real opportunity to grow small grains. Another stumbling block is the lack of fencing to use these fields for temporary grazing. Cutting small grains for hay can also be challenging due to the short days and cool damp weather January through March, but an alternative would be to utilize small grains for silage or round bale silage.
Small grains for forage may not be a good fit for every farm, but it is time to reconsider them as another option in a diversified farming operation.