The use of winter annual cereals to promote soil health properties and suppress annual weeds has become the norm for many farmers in the U.S. Winter cereals provide green, active growing plants during the fall and early winter periods, and are the first to green up in the spring. Winter cereals extend the growing season of living plant roots in the soil – feeding the soil microbiome – while providing an armor for the soil.

Sedivec kevin
Extension Rangeland Management Specialist / North Dakota State University
Meehan miranda
Livestock Environmental Stewardship Specialist / North Dakota State University

Winter cereals also provide excellent forage for livestock, either for grazing or to be hayed for roughage. In fact, winter cereals were a livestock forage well before soil health became a concern.

Livestock grazing on cropland is becoming a more popular tool to enhance soil health and has been identified as one of the six principles of soil health. The beauty of cover crops, including winter cereals, is they provide soil health benefits while creating excellent feed for livestock.

Winter cereal options

The most common winter cereal used for planting green is winter rye, but other options are available. When thinking about which winter cereal to plant, you will need to determine your planned use and the crop that will follow it. Always plant a winter forage cereal – versus grain type – as they tend to be more winter hardy, leafier and more palatable for livestock feed.

If you plan to graze the winter cereal in the fall and again in the spring, your best options are winter rye or winter triticale. Both emerge fast in the spring and provide grazing in late April and May, depending on where you’re located. Winter wheat is a slower-growing crop and matures three to four weeks later than rye. Winter triticale is about three to four days later than rye as it relates to maturity. However, there are varietal differences in maturation, so visit with your local extension agent or seed sales representative on which variety works best for your area.


Never follow a small-grain crop after a winter cereal crop, as contamination of the grain with the winter cereal grain can occur. If you plan to follow the winter cereal with corn or canola, terminate the winter cereal crop two to three weeks prior to seeding the cash crop. This is especially recommended when using winter rye. Soybeans are safe to plant into winter cereals anytime, but be careful with water management, as winter cereals use water and in times of drought can suppress yield.

Planned use for grazing winter cereal before seeding a crop

Although the recommended time for seeding winter cereals is early to mid-September, you can seed in August if soil moisture conditions are good. Fall grazing can occur once the plant reaches a height of 6 to 8 inches. The longer you wait, the more forage will be available to graze. You can safely graze winter rye down to a stubble height of 1 to 2 inches but only graze winter triticale to a stubble height of 3 inches. Research at North Dakota State University found the fall grazing of winter rye did not impact the forage production of ground cover of stands the following spring. Winter rye is more winter hardy than winter triticale in the Northern states.

Spring grazing should start when the plants reach a height of 6 to 8 inches. Once winter rye or triticale reach this stage, growth is fast and can reach the heading stage within three weeks. Cattle will become more selective, and performance declines once the plants reach the heading stage. Strip grazing is recommended to increase harvest efficiency and the distribution of manure and urine.

Planned use for haying winter cereal before seeding a crop

Although all winter cereal options can be hayed, winter wheat provides the best quality feed with good tonnage. Winter wheat is higher in crude protein and lower in lignin, creating a more palatable, high-quality feed for livestock. Winter triticale tends to be higher in digestible energy, while winter rye is lowest in protein and energy. Both winter rye and triticale should be harvested at the early heading stage to maintain quality. When harvested at the seed development stage, both are best fed as grinding hay.

Although winter wheat is the best option for hay, it reaches the heading stage two to three weeks later than rye and triticale. With the later maturity, you will be limited in options to seed a second crop, especially in the Northern states with a shorter growing season. Good crop options following winter wheat include warm-season forages, such as sorghum-sudan hybrids and foxtail millet, and a full-season cover crop. These options create an opportunity for a second hay crop or late summer grazing.

Planning ahead

Although it’s only the grazing and haying season, planning your winter cereal options should begin soon. Base your decision on your planned use (graze versus hay) and subsequent crop to follow. Winter cereals are a great option to supplement your forage system while building and protecting the soil.