Utilizing small grains in the crop rotation has gained in popularity in recent years. This strategy has benefited the environment, animal performance and the profitability of dairy operations. However, any practice has pros and cons. Double cropping that produces feed, versus a cover crop, does come with challenges.

Ishler virginia
Extension Specialist / Penn State University Extension Dairy Team
Virginia Ishler is a Penn State extension specialist with 27 years of experience in the areas of ...

Weather conditions in the fall and spring can hamper planting and harvesting of the small grain and the timing of planting for the main crop, such as corn. There is usually a very tight window on getting lactating-cow quality feed and, if the small-grain forage gets too mature, then it becomes more suitable for dry cows and heifers.

The other aspect is harvesting enough tonnage to allow ample inventory for feeding and maintaining a unit cost that is appropriate. Penn State researchers have been studying cropping strategies incorporating small-grain silage into the rotation as well as examining the feeding and financial aspects of this approach.

Management plays heavily into how successful an operation is at utilizing small-grain silage, especially for the milking cows.

Small-grain silage can include rye, wheat, barley, oats and triticale. Producers have learned planting different small grains can space out the window for harvesting, especially when a lot of acreage is being double cropped. In the ideal setting, to achieve milk-quality forage, harvesting prior to the development of stem and seedhead is recommended.


Quality can decline dramatically with the appearance of the seedhead, and weather conditions can make it challenging to achieve a high-quality forage.

There are two aspects to high-quality forage: proper moisture and particle size to achieve a good fermentation profile, and nutrient content that can complement the main forage diet to optimize milk production.


Examining data from Dairy One Forage Lab’s composition library for rye and triticale silage, dry matter ranged from 23 to 55 percent. Forage ensiled at very low dry matter is susceptible to a poor fermentation profile that results in very low lactic acid and high butyric acid. Even if the forage tests low in fiber, high in digestibility and high in protein, the poor ensiling process will negatively impact intake and animal performance.

The key metrics for small-grain silage that define good quality for the lactating cow are neutral detergent fiber (NDF), NDF digestibility (30 hours) and the protein content.

The composition library from Dairy One for ryelage and triticale showed a range for NDF of 50 to 65 percent on a dry matter basis, NDF digestibility (30 hours) range of 57 to 72 as a percent of NDF and protein range of 10 to 19 percent on a dry matter basis. Milk cow-quality feed would require low NDF, high NDF digestibility and the high end for protein content.

The other part of the equation to consider is yield. There must be a balance between obtaining high-quality forage as well as harvesting adequate tonnage to meet the inventory required to feed the animals as well as maintain a unit cost that is in line.

Twenty-four very well-managed dairy operations participated in a project funded by Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. Twenty of the farms incorporated small-grain silage into their cropping rotation. All farms were evaluated using RankEm (a University of Minnesota program) where herds producing small-grain silage were divided into three groupings based on net return – low, middle and high.

Average cost of production of small-grain silage was calculated for each group. Data was collected for 2016 and 2017. On average, 211 acres were double cropped on the 20 farms. The herds with the highest costs for producing small-grain silage averaged 5.5 as-fed tons per acre with a unit price of $61.60 per ton.

The herds with the lowest costs averaged 8.2 as-fed tons per acre priced at $33.90 per ton. These numbers are very similar to the larger database of farms the Penn State dairy business management team compiles.

Financial returns

Out of 72 farms completing a cash-flow plan and using small-grain silage, 86 acres on average were being double cropped. The yields ranged from 3.9 to 9.1 as-fed tons per acre with respective costs of $56.70 to $28.20 per ton. The price per ton includes costs associated with directs, overheads, owner draw and loan payments. Yield per acre influences the price per ton, and there are no quality metrics included.

Feeding strategies

There are different feeding strategies implemented with small-grain silage. Some farms utilize small grains year-round. They are typically heavy corn-silage feeders and have moved away from alfalfa. The other group of producers have limited inventory of small grains and are feeding them for only a few months and then switch over to either alfalfa or grass silage.

Then there are a select few feeding a combination of corn silage, hay-crop forage and small-grain forage throughout the year.

Based on the herds in several Penn State projects, dry matter coming from small-grain silage can range from 1 to 12 pounds per lactating cow per day. Many herds incorporate small-grain silage for lactating cows; however, there are producers who raise it solely for dry cows and heifers. This becomes a means of adding home-raised feed to their inventory and reduces or eliminates the need for purchased forages.

Best fits

Double cropping has been a practice producers have embraced for numerous reasons. From the agronomic side, it provides the opportunity to utilize manure nutrients and supplies cover over the winter to minimize nutrient loss. Managing the cover crop as a high-quality forage for the lactating herd can offer a very consistent forage compared to the multiple-cutting approach for alfalfa and grass.

It can also be managed as a source of feed for dry cows and heifers. There is no one approach that makes double cropping successful.

Every dairy operation has different bottlenecks when it comes to climate, soil fertility, labor, equipment, etc. Producers who have been successful have learned it takes flexibility and adaptation to find the right fit.  end mark

PHOTO: Small-grain silage, as a double-crop opportunity, finds a place in lactating herd diets as well as dry cow and heifer groups. Staff photo

Virginia Ishler is a Penn State extension specialist with 27 years of experience in the areas of business and feed management.

Virginia Ishler