Growth Stages of Winter Wheat
Growth Stages of Winter Wheat
So far, the local wheat crop seems to be doing well, despite the lack of irrigation water. 

Wheat is produced in almost every state in the United States, and is the principal cereal grain grown in the country. 

The United States is ranked third in production volume of wheat, with 1.74 billion bushels produced in 2017 growing season, behind only China and India.

The United States ranks first in crop export volume; almost 50% of its total wheat production is exported.

Although, the majority of wheat produced in the United State is harvested for grain to make flour for bread and pastas. In our local area, most of the wheat is harvested for forage or hay.

Wheat hay, if harvested right, can be a very palatable feed. However, the trick to harvesting the perfect wheat hay bale is hitting a tight window of seven to 10 days before grain starts to develop.

As wheat matures, its feed value declines and its feed characteristics change. The more mature the grain becomes, the more the hay acts like a grain-plus-straw mixture. 

The starchy grain starts to inhibit rumen microbial digestion of the herbage portion, resulting in lower energy levels obtained from the hay than lab tests might suggest. 

Additionally, many wheat varieties have awns that stiffen as heads mature. These awns can cause discomfort or even injure animal mouths, thus lowering palatability and intake.

Cut wheat for hay while it is in the boot to very early head-emergence growth stage if the hay will be fed to calves or other livestock needing relatively high nutrient density for optimal performance. 

For dry beef cows, hay yield can be increased substantially by waiting until early milk stage of the grain. Harvesting of more mature wheat will increase risk of the awn problem discussed above and result in relatively low-quality hay. In addition, as grain level increase, rodents become more of a problem in the hay.

When harvesting small grains for hay in the late-boot stage, a crimper or crusher attachment will help speed the drying, but when harvesting in the milk or dough stages, these attachments increase kernel-shattering losses. 

If the crop is harvested in the dough stage, plants will not contain excess moisture, so crimping or crushing may not be beneficial.

In addition to the maturity of wheat hay, it is also critical to understand the nitrate risk. If you were planning on a very good wheat crop and fertilized it accordingly, but it didn’t make grain, there is a good chance that it could be high in nitrates.

As plants take nitrogen out of the soil, it goes through multiple processes in the plant prior to making grain. If this process is slowed or stopped (e.g. by drought), the nitrogen is held in a state that is not safe for livestock (nitrate), especially pregnant females.

Make sure to have all small grain hays tested for nitrates prior to feeding to livestock.

 Studies have shown that a field of five to six tons per acre can be achieved for winter cereals grown under high precipitation or irrigated conditions. 

Based on these forage production levels, cereal forages are ideal for use in rotation while renovating old alfalfa stands.

Source: Wheat for Hay, Glen Arnold, OSU Extension Educator, OSU Extension.