Soil First® Cover Crop Grasses

Cover crop grasses including annual ryegrass, cereal grains like fall rye, triticale, wheat, barley and oats, and summer annuals serve as excellent cover crop options for many growers.

With the greater need for quality feed sources, cereal grains are becoming increasingly popular as forage supplements to existing perennial hay and summer annual acres. Many forage benefits are consistent across all cereal grains, but differences to exist in quality and tonnage based on proper management.

When opportunity exists to plant early, warm season annuals provide large amounts of biomass while easing compaction, improving soil tilth and absorbing excess nutrients left behind from cash crops. These grasses provide quality forage for all classes of ruminants, and can be part of a planned cover crop program where the dual benefit of forage is the goal.

Annual Ryegrass

Annual ryegrass is a quick growing, cool season annual grass. Annual ryegrass has come under scrutiny recently as a cover crop, however the species still provides benefits much needed across the Midwest: nutrient sequestration, erosion control and compaction alleviation. It also adds biomass and organic matter while improving soil structure. With proper management in areas where it overwinters, annual ryegrass should be considered as a viable option –both for cover cropping and/or forage.

Cereal Grains

Fall Rye

Fall (cereal) rye is an upright, cool season annual grass that germinates in cool conditions. Very few species offer the many benefits as fall rye while allowing extended planting flexibility long into the fall.

Spring/Winter Barley

Winter Barley is an upright, cool season annual grass known for its quick growth and low water use. Barley is often used on soils where reclamation and/or rapid soil recovery is the goal.

Barley can be used as a cover crop in the spring or planted in the fall to provide a fall forage for deer. Winter barley is the most susceptible to winterkill of the cereal grains. Consideration should be made when grazing late into the fall. Barley’s value as a silage crop is the most comparable to whole-plant corn (90-100%).

Spring Oats

  • Ideal for the entry-level cover cropper as it will not over-winter in most areas of the Midwest
  • The perfect nurse crop for legumes and brassicas
  • Oats offer unique symbiotic relationship with many other cover crops (increased mycorrhizae colonization)
  • Oats effectively scavenge left over nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium left over from cash crops, especially when given enough time to mature
  • Heavy producer of bio-mass in 8-10 weeks; great for smothering weeds
  • Left over residue (if any) in spring can easily be managed with light disking
  • Spring oats can be planted in the fall, as long as it’s early enough to justify 90-100 day production
  • Differences exist between forage oats and earlier maturing varieties
  • Best use: Silage (milk-dough stage) and hay (boot-heading stage)

Winter Triticale

Winter triticale is a cross between wheat and rye grain, bringing together the cover crop benefits and tonnage potential of cereal rye with the increased feed value of wheat.

Winter Wheat

  • Great cover or “cash” crop for catching excess nutrients (and nitrogen) leftover from other cropping systems
  • Excellent weed suppressor
  • Offers the option to frost seed clovers and/or other legumes
  • Wheat has good potential for forage and is usually higher in quality than rye, triticale and oats, but not barley
  • Best use: Fall and spring pasture, silage (boot-dough stage) and hay (boot-milk stage)

Summer Annuals

Pearl Millet

  • High leaf-to-stem ratio
  • Improved standability
  • Adaptable to marginal soils
  • Excellent disease resistance
  • Flexible to various pH soils

Sorghum x Sudangrass

  • Summer annual grass with high biomass production and nitrogen scavenging properties
  • Best suited for summer/late summer seeding to take advantage of growing-degree-units for quick growth
  • Large root mass produced as it’s needed for withstanding heat and drought
  • Sown at even higher rates when used as forage, it makes a great weed suppressor
  • Well suited for multiple harvest systems
  • Excellent re-growth, drought tolerance and feed value

Sudangrass

  • Very large biomass producer- 4-8 DM tons/acre
  • Ideal for grazing and hay operations- easier to dry down than sorghums
  • Known for quick re-growth ability
  • Good prevent plant option because it’s compatible over multiple environments and soil types

Teff Grass

Teff is a warm season annual grass native to Ethiopia. Plants are fine stemmed with large crowns and many tillers. Roots are shallow and develop a massive fibrous root system. Plant height at maturity is typically 3-4 ft., but varies depending on variety and environmental conditions. When harvested at the proper stage, crude protein will normally be in the 15%-20% range. Teff has an open panicle type seed head.

Annual Ryegrass

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):

Compaction Alleviation: 5
Weed Suppression: 5
Biomass Production: 3
Erosion Control: 5
Disease/Pest Control: 3
Pollinator/Beneficials: 2
P & K Cycling: 3
Ease of Establishment: 5
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 9
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .58
ADF%²: 38
NDF%³: 65
TDN: 58
DM Tons/Acre: .5-2
Days to First Harvest: 90
Days to Next Harvest: –

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Better
Baleage: Good
Chop: Best

Fall Rye

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):

Compaction Alleviation: 4
Weed Suppression: 5
Biomass Production: 4
Erosion Control: 5
Disease/Pest Control: 3
Pollinator/Beneficials: 1
P & K Cycling: 4
Ease of Establishment: 4
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 10 (Hay); 14 (Silage)
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .58 (Hay); .59 (Silage)
ADF%²: 38 (Hay); 37 (Silage)
NDF%³: 65 (Hay); 59 (Silage)
TDN: 58 (Hay); 59 (Silage)
DM Tons/Acre: 3-5 (Hay); 2.5-4 (Silage)
Days to First Harvest: Spring
Days to Next Harvest: –

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Good (Hay); NA (Silage)
Baleage: Better (Hay); Good (Silage)
Chop: Best (Hay); Best (Silage)

Spring/Winter Barley

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):
Compaction Alleviation: 1
Weed Suppression: 4
Biomass Production: 5
Erosion Control: 4
Disease/Pest Control: 3
Pollinator/Beneficials: 2
P & K Cycling: 3
Ease of Establishment: 4
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 12 (Spring); 9 (Winter)
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .58 (Spring); .57 (Winter)
ADF%²: 37
NDF%³: 58 (Spring); 65 (Winter)
TDN: 59 (Spring); 57 (Winter)
DM Tons/Acre: 2-4 (Spring); 3-4 (Winter)
Days to First Harvest: 50 (Spring); Spring (Winter)
Days to Next Harvest: –

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Better
Baleage: Good
Chop: Best

Spring Oats

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):
Compaction Alleviation: 2
Weed Suppression: 4
Biomass Production: 5 (Hay); 4 (Silage)
Erosion Control: 4
Disease/Pest Control: 3
Pollinator/Beneficials: 1
P & K Cycling: 3
Ease of Establishment: 4
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 10 (Hay); 12 (Silage)
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .54 (Hay); .60 (Silage)
ADF%²: 39
NDF%³: 63 (Hay); 59 (Silage)
TDN: 54 (Hay); 60 (Silage)
DM Tons/Acre: 3-6 (Hay); 1.5-3.5 (Silage)
Days to First Harvest: 60-70 (Hay) ; 80 (Silage)
Days to Next Harvest: –

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Better (Hay) ; NA (Silage)
Baleage: Good
Chop: Best

Winter Triticale

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):
Compaction Alleviation: 2
Weed Suppression: 4
Biomass Production: 5
Erosion Control: 4
Disease/Pest Control: 3
Pollinator/Beneficials: 1
P & K Cycling: 4
Ease of Establishment: 4
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 12
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .58
ADF%²: 41
NDF%³: 69
TDN: 56
DM Tons/Acre: 2.5-4
Days to First Harvest: Spring
Days to Next Harvest: –

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Good
Baleage: Better
Chop: Best

Winter Wheat

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):
Compaction Alleviation: 3
Weed Suppression: 4
Biomass Production: 4
Erosion Control: 5
Disease/Pest Control: 3
Pollinator/Beneficials: 1
P & K Cycling: 4
Ease of Establishment: 4
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 9 (Hay); 12 (Silage)
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .57 (Hay); .59 (Silage)
ADF%²: 38 (Hay); 37 (Silage)
NDF%³: 66 (Hay); 62 (Silage)
TDN: 59
DM Tons/Acre: 2-3
Days to First Harvest: Spring
Days to Next Harvest: –

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Better (Hay); NA (Silage)
Baleage: Best (Hay); Good (Silage)
Chop: Good (Hay); Best (Silage)

Pearl Millet

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):
Compaction Alleviation: 3
Weed Suppression: 5
Biomass Production: 5
Erosion Control: 4
Disease/Pest Control: 4
Pollinator/Beneficials: 3
P & K Cycling: 3
Ease of Establishment: 5
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 16
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .66
ADF%²: 39
NDF%³: 48
TDN: 52
DM Tons/Acre: 3-6
Days to First Harvest: 45
Days to Next Harvest: 35

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Better
Baleage: Good
Chop: Best

Sorghum x Sudangrass

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):
Compaction Alleviation: 4
Weed Suppression: 5
Biomass Production: 5
Erosion Control: 4
Disease/Pest Control: 4
Pollinator/Beneficials: 3
P & K Cycling: 3
Ease of Establishment: 4
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 16
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .70
ADF%²: 29
NDF%³: 55
TDN: 55
DM Tons/Acre: 5-8
Days to First Harvest: 45-70
Days to Next Harvest: 30

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Good
Baleage: Better
Chop: Best

Sudangrass

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):
Compaction Alleviation: 4
Weed Suppression: 5
Biomass Production: 5
Erosion Control: 4
Disease/Pest Control: 4
Pollinator/Beneficials: 3
P & K Cycling: 3
Ease of Establishment: 4
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 9
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .57
ADF%²: 43
NDF%³: 67
TDN: 57
DM Tons/Acre: 2-6
Days to First Harvest: 50
Days to Next Harvest: 30

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Good
Baleage: Better
Chop: Best

Teff Grass

Non-Forage Benefits (5=Excellent):
Compaction Alleviation: 1
Weed Suppression: 3
Biomass Production: 3
Erosion Control: 4
Disease/Pest Control: 3
Pollinator/Beneficials: 2
P & K Cycling: 3
Ease of Establishment: 4
Nitrogen Fixer/Scavenger: Scavenger

Nutritional Value:
Crude Protein: 18
NEL¹ Mcal/lb.: .60
ADF%²: 33
NDF%³: 57
TDN: 64
DM Tons/Acre: 3-5
Days to First Harvest: 35
Days to Next Harvest: 25

Ranking (Good, Better, Best):
Graze: Not Rated
Baleage: Good
Chop: Best

 

Nutritional values vary greatly depending on maturity
¹- Net Energy for Lactation = Energy available after subtracting digestive and metabolic losses
²- Acid Detergent Fiber = Low values mean more digestible
³- Neutral Detergent Fiber = Low values mean cows can eat more

Annual Ryegrass

Planting Time:
Mar.-Apr.; Aug-Oct.

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 15-30
Mix (lbs./acre): 10-15
Forage (lbs./acre): 25-35

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): Vegetative- 20:1
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 1/4
Seeds/lb.: 215,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): 32
Aerial Application Rate: 15-35
Germination Soil Temp.: 40 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: 6
Days to Emergence: 7

Fall Rye

Planting Time:
Aug.-Oct.

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 30-50
Mix (lbs./acre): 20-40
Forage (lbs./acre): 80-120

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): Vegetative- 20:1 (Hay); Straw- 80:1 (Silage)
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 3/4-1
Seeds/lb.: 16-18,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): 50 (Hay); – (Silage)
Aerial Application Rate: 20-60
Germination Soil Temp.: 34 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3
Days to Emergence: 5-8

Spring/Winter Barley

Planting Time:
Mar.-Apr.; Aug.-Sept. (Spring); Aug.-Oct. (Winter)

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 30-50
Mix (lbs./acre): 20-40
Forage (lbs./acre): 80-120

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): Straw- 80:1 (Spring); Vegetative- 20:1 (Winter)
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 3/4-1
Seeds/lb.: 14-16,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): – (Spring); 40 (Winter)
Aerial Application Rate: Not Rated (Spring); 20-60 (Winter)
Germination Soil Temp.: 38 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: 6
Days to Emergence: 6-8

Spring Oats

Planting Time:
Mar.-Apr.; Aug.-Sept.

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 30-50
Mix (lbs./acre): 20-40
Forage (lbs./acre): 80-120

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): Vegetative- 20:1 (Hay); Straw- 80:1 (Silage)
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 3/4-1
Seeds/lb.: 15-18,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): 38 (Hay); – (Silage)
Aerial Application Rate: 20-60
Germination Soil Temp.: 38 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: 7
Days to Emergence: 5-8

Winter Triticale

Planting Time:
Aug.-Oct.

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 30-50
Mix (lbs./acre): 20-40
Forage (lbs./acre): 80-120

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): Vegetative-20:1
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 3/4-1
Seeds/lb.: 14-16,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): 48
Aerial Application Rate: 20-60
Germination Soil Temp.: 38 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3
Days to Emergence: 6-8

Winter Wheat

Planting Time:
Aug.-Oct.

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 30-50
Mix (lbs./acre): 20-40
Forage (lbs./acre): 80-120

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): Vegetative- 20:1 (Hay); Straw- 80:1 (Silage)
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 3/4-1
Seeds/lb.: 11-12,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): 48 (Hay); – (Silage)
Aerial Application Rate: 20-60
Germination Soil Temp.: 38 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3
Days to Emergence: 6-10

Pearl Millet

Planting Time:
May-Aug.

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 20-30
Mix (lbs./acre): 5-20
Forage (lbs./acre): 20-30

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): 12:1-20:1
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 1/2-1
Seeds/lb.: 60,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): 42
Aerial Application Rate: Not Rated
Germination Soil Temp.: 65 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: Frost
Days to Emergence: 3-5

Sorghum x Sudangrass

Planting Time:
May-July

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 25-70
Mix (lbs./acre): 5-20
Forage (lbs./acre): 25-70

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): Leftover stalks- 80:1
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 3/4-1½
Seeds/lb.: 21,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): 45
Aerial Application Rate: Not Rated
Germination Soil Temp.: 65 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: Frost
Days to Emergence: 10

Sudangrass

Planting Time:
May-July

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 20-45
Mix (lbs./acre): –
Forage (lbs./acre): 20-45

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): –
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 1/2-1
Seeds/lb.: 43,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): 40
Aerial Application Rate: Not Rated
Germination Soil Temp.: 65 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: Frost
Days to Emergence: 3-5

Teff Grass

Planting Time:
May-July

Seeding Rate:
Mono (lbs./acre): 8-12
Mix (lbs./acre): –
Forage (lbs./acre): 8-12

Seeding Info:
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio (C:N): Vegetative-20:1
Seeding Depth (in./with drill): 1/4
Seeds/lb.: 1,300,000
Bulk Density (lbs/ft): –
Aerial Application Rate: Not Rated
Germination Soil Temp.: 65 F
USDA Hardiness Zone: Frost
Days to Emergence: 3-5

Annual Ryegrass

Considerations:

  • Prefers pH between 6.0-7.0
  • Intolerant of heat and dry weather
  • Hundreds of annual ryegrass varieties are on the market- choose the best to meet your goals

9 Key Details When Using Glyphosate For Annual Ryegrass Burndown

  • Use full glyphosate rates… include ammonium sulfate (AMS)
  • Check your water to ensure the correct pH levels
  • Standard or XR flat fan nozzles are the best for most applications (medium droplet size)
  • Keep spray application volume to 10 gals./acre
  • Top growth should be taller than 4-8 in.
  • Soil temperatures need to be at least 45 F and climbing
  • Ambient air temperatures need to be above 55-60 F –delay applications when night-time temperatures drop below 38 F (ideally need 3 nights above 40 F)
  • Spray in the middle of the day (after dew has dried but 4 hrs. prior to sunset to allow for adequate translocation)
  • If a 2nd application is needed, wait at least 2 weeks after the 1st pass,
    annual ryegrass becomes harder to control after it joints (begins stem elongation)

Oregon Ryegrass Growers – 2014 (RyegrassCovercrop.com)

Fall Rye

Considerations

  • Ideal pH = 5.0-7.0
  • Quick spring growth can easily get away from many producers- have a plan to manage effectively
  • Rye offers the advantage of being the easiest cereal grain to establish in poor soils and having the greatest cold tolerance. Rye offers the greatest production for hay or pasture ground because of its quick growth both in the fall and spring.

Removal Rates

  • Equivalent 60 bushel yield crop, 80-100# N, 40# P, 60-70# K

Spring/Winter Barley

Considerations

  • Prefers pH 6.0 – 8.5
  • Inconsistent at overwintering versus other winter small grains
  • Avoid seeding in cold, damp soils
  • Winter barley is the most susceptible to winterkill of the cereal grains. Consideration should be made when grazing late into the fall. Barley’s value as a silage crop is the most comparable to whole-plant corn (90-100%).

Spring Oats

Considerations

  • Oats can be planted in the fall, as long as it’s early enough to justify 60-90 day production.

Removal Rates

  • Equivalent 80 bushel yield crop, 70-90# N, 30# P, 100# K

Winter Triticale

Considerations

  • Ideal pH = 5.2–7.0
  • Spring growth can be a management concern; terminate early when preceding a grass crop
  • Triticale is a cross between wheat and rye. This makes for a crop with higher yields than wheat, but lower quality. Triticale is best suited for grazing pasture. Because of its large stems, hay wilting and silage packing can be difficult.

Winter Wheat

Considerations

  • Wheat has good potential for forage and is usually higher in quality than rye, triticale and oats but not barley. However, wheat usually produces more dry matter than barley.

Removal Rates

  • Equivalent 60 bushel yield crop, 80-100# N, 40# P, 60-70# K

Managing Small Grains for Forage

Fertility
Fertilizer removal rates need to be considered as well. When utilizing cover crops as forage, it’s critical to consider the nutrients being removed along with the biomass. These fertilizer levels will need to be added to ensure maximum nutrient availability for the following cash crop.

Hay Production
Hay yields often average between 2-4 tons/acre. Moisture content should be between 15-20% moisture. Hay quality is more maturity-dependent at harvest than is silage.

The most efficient time to harvest small grain cereals for hay is at early-milk stage. This allows for the greatest compromise between forage yield and
quality (quality would be greatest at the late-boot stage). To help speed up drying, a crimper is recommended when harvesting in the late-boot stage

Silage Production
Wheat, barley, oat and triticale silage yields are similar, 4-7 tons/acre of 35% dry matter forage in the boot stage and closer to 6-10 tons/acre when harvested in the late-boot stage. Small grains should be ensiled at between 62–68% moisture. Chop length should be set finer than when harvesting corn or forage sorghum. (Kansas State University)

For more cereal grains management tips, please see the following: Spring Management Tips for Winter Cereal Grains

Summer Annuals

Nitrate Toxicity is common when fertility or manure applications are followed by a period of drought or stress. Cut plants do not lessen in their nitrate levels as they cure. If high levels are suspected, forage should be tested for a period of a few weeks until levels subside. Though often linked to summer annual grasses, increased nitrate levels can show up in most cover crops and forages.

  • Nitrates are concentrated more in the lower stalk– raising cutting height can reduce the risk
  • When a stressful drought precedes a moisture event, it is recommended to delay harvest by 1-2 weeks
  • Consider split applications of nitrogen (especially useful on summer annuals) to decrease nitrate accumulations

Prussic Acid poisoning can occur when feeding forage sorghums after periods of drought or other stress, including frost. Toxic levels dissipate usually after 2-3 weeks and will further decrease when ensiled. Prussic acid is most concentrated in new growth, so sorghum forages should not be grazed until they are at least 18 in. tall. Storing hay or silage for at least 30 days generally dissipates the concern.

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