When to Harvest Cereal Rye
It’s that time of year, cereal rye is growing like crazy and will be ready to harvest as forage soon. Cereal rye works well as silage, baleage, and can also be grazed, but when is it ready to harvest? The timing of when to harvest cereal rye depends on if your main goal for the forage is quality or tonnage:
If gaining high quality forage is your goal, you will want to aim for harvesting at boot stage. As shown above, the boot stage is when the flag leaf has emerged and the seed head has formed within the stem, but has not yet emerged. The forage at this time will be at its peak of digestibility and energy. After this stage, the rye begins to lignify and quality declines. Protein levels can be expected to be around 8-13% and cry matter will be 21-32% (Drovers). The downside of harvesting cereal rye at this time is the tonnage will not be as high as cereal rye can achieve, which leads us to the next harvest stage...
When dairy-quality feed is not something your farm requires, achieving tonnage goals may be more important to you. Harvesting cereal rye closer to the soft dough stage will help maximize the tonnage received from cereal rye. The soft dough stage shown above is when the seed head is fully emerged and is beginning to convert sugars to starch. A good test to see if your cereal rye is at this stage is to take a seed between your fingers and squeeze. The seed head should burst, but the contents should be thicker, like dough, and not milky. Compared to the quality and boot stage, forage harvested at the soft dough stage will be slightly less digestible and contain more starch.
If you aim for a harvest time between these two points, you may achieve a balance of tonnage and quality. It really depends on the goals of your farm!
"Forage Focus: Cereal rye - A cover crop with feed value?" Drovers, 2 Oct. 2013.