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By Megan Wittmeyer
  • Animal Science
  • Agriculture
  • Field Crops
  • Dairy

A recent study aims to help dairy farmers increase feed quality and quantity by adding winter cereals to their crop rotations. Researchers examined the interaction between forage yield, quality and harvest timing for barley, cereal rye and triticale. 

Cows produce more milk when fed high quality feed. On dairy farms, this feed is mainly forage (such as corn silage, grass, or alfalfa), which consists of the leaves and stems of a plant. Quality depends on harvesting at optimal maturity, but this can be tricky due to harvest disruptions and rapid weather changes. Without timely harvest, forages will grow past their prime, leading to higher yields of lower quality feed. Although somewhat less valuable, this feed is far from useless as it can still be fed to non-milking cows, including younger stock. Winter cereal harvest timing presents dairy farmers with significant trade-offs to consider as they try to optimize feed and milk production for milking and non-milking cows. 

The findings

The data revealed barley has the highest quality and keeps its quality the longest without timely harvest. But barley underperforms in yield and winter hardiness. Consequently, farmers who prioritize the highest-quality feed and flexible harvest could use barley but only if winter hardiness is not an issue.

Cereal rye and triticale tied for highest yields, but cereal rye matured earliest in the spring while triticale matured the latest. This makes cereal rye the best option for farmers who want high yields and early harvest, which can provide more time to plant the next crop in a double-cropping system. 

Cereal rye’s quality declines faster and triticale can be harvested later without taking such a big hit on quality. Farmers seeking high yield and a longer harvest window should select triticale. 

Why it matters

With rising feed and transportation costs and increasing uncertainty with extreme weather events, it’s important for dairy farmers to grow more forage on the farm itself. Adding winter cereals to a crop rotation can boost feed production, diversify the cropping system and improve soil health, while reducing a farm’s environmental footprint. This study helps farmers fulfill their herd’s forage needs by equipping them with data to select winter cereals suitable for their crop and livestock systems. 

What the experts say

“There are major benefits from growing winter cereals followed by summer forages like corn grown for silage or forage sorghum. The winter cereal acts as a cover crop in the winter, reducing risk of soil erosion and nitrate leaching. In the spring, it’s an additional source of forage. The results can help farmers choose a winter cereal that best fits their needs,” said Jeffrey Liebert, former Ph.D. student with the Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab in the Cornell CALS School of Integrative Plant Science. 

“Farmers want to understand the benefits and challenges of new cropping systems before they implement them. This study lays out the benefits and trade-offs of three common winter cereals so farmers can match their system with the right species,” said Quirine Ketterings, director of NMSP and professor of nutrient management in the Cornell CALS Department of Animal Science.

Study Authors

Jeffrey Liebert, Jerome Cherney, Quirine Ketterings, Steven Mirsky, Christopher Pelzer, Matthew Ryan


Cornell University, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Read the full study

Winter cereal species, cultivar, and harvest timing affect trade-offs between forage quality and yield


Megan Wittmeyer is a writer for the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program. 

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