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Wheat forage


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Common names 

Wheat forage, wheat hay, wheat silage, whole crop wheat silage, whole crop wheat forage


Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) is generally thought as a grain crop, but it can be a useful winter pasture and forage source (Cash et al., 2007; MAES, 2005). Cereal plants are known to produce very nutritious roughage for livestock maintenance during winter and wheat forage is as valuable as oat forage (Shuja et al., 2009; Cash et al., 2007; Piccioni, 1965). While winter wheat is valuable for forage production in temperate climates, spring wheat is preferred in tropical and subtropical regions where it can be made into valuable silage (Mannetje et al., 2000).

Winter and spring cultivars of wheat can be used in double-crop systems. Wheat forage can be grown before maize or soybean (Bruening, 2007) or before a summer forage legume (Northup et al., 2010). Growing wheat forage is a good way to generate diversified incomes (double crop or cattle and crop), and to decrease the risk associated with wheat production in areas where growing conditions are not optimal for grain wheat (Carver, 2009).

Wheat forage may be grazed or cut for hay and silage. It is also possible to grow wheat as winter pasture and then cut it for hay during the spring (Bruening, 2007).


Wheat forage has been used for decades in the USA, Australia and in many Mediterranean countries where it can be sown on dry and hot soils as early as mid-August (Piccioni, 1965). It is also grown in Argentina (Arzadun et al., 2006). In these countries winter wheat is generally used for forage.

In tropical and subtropical countries, spring wheat may be valuable for making silage as it can be sown just before the rainy season and harvested early in the warm season so that a secondary crop can be sown during this period (Ashbell et al., 2001).

Forage management 

Dual-purpose varieties

When both wheat forage and wheat grain production are intended, dual-purpose varieties can provide good quality forage during late fall and winter and sufficient grains the next summer. Dual purpose wheats are generally taller, finely stemmed, with awns or without. Wheat forage may be grazed during winter without altering grain harvest yield in the summer (Epplin et al., 2000). In order to preserve both forage yield and grain yield, forage wheat should have accumulated a maximum of biomass before winter: it must be able to germinate in hot weather conditions (as early as mid-August in the northern hemisphere), it should be sown at a high density so that a maximum leaf surface is obtained before winter and it should have vigorous growth early in the fall (Carver, 2009; Cash et al., 2009). A suitable dual-purpose wheat cultivar should be able to germinate under hot soil conditions and to have prolific tillering with non precocious arrival of the first hollow stem stage (Carver, 2009).

In some cases such as flooding or frost, only-grain wheat can be used as forage wheat and be cut for hay or silage. Cutting wheat during spring is an opportunity for double cropping with soybean, for example (Lee et al., 2007).


In the USA, forage wheat varieties have an average forage DM yield of about 3 t/ha but some cultivars may be much more productive (7-11 t DM/ha in Montana) (Cash et al., 2009).


Forage wheats have a semi-erect habit so that a part of the plant can be easily grazed by cattle without damaging too much leaf surface, which is necessary for maintaining grain yield (Carver, 2009). Grazing after the first hollow-stem stage may hamper grain yield and cattle should be removed from the stands at this stage; it is, therefore, important for optimal cattle feeding that this stage arrives as late as possible (Cash et al., 2009).

Wheat forage can be grazed from autumn (once complete tillering is achieved and culms begin to grow erect) to late winter (up to "first hollow-stem stage") without hindering future grain yield (Carver, 2009). After this stage grain yield is reported to be reduced by 20 to 50% in grazed plots (Winter et al., 1990, Winter et al., 1991 cited by Shuja et al., 2009). However, cattle can remain on the stand if their weight gains are sufficient to offset wheat grain losses. Stocking rate and weather conditions also play a role in wheat yield. During wet periods, heavy grazing causes trampling and hence damages the wheat plant, which will then have a lower yield in the summer (Carver, 2009). Optimal grazing height is reported to be about 7 cm (Arzadun et al., 2006).

Wheat hay or silage

When wheat forage is used for hay or silage, it should be cut at the boot stage or at very early head emergence. At these early stages, wheat forage is very palatable and has a high nutritive value. When cut later (at the early milk stage of the grain), its nutritive value is lower (Boyles et al., 2010; NDSU, 2008). Because hay may be a cause of nitrate poisoning (see Potential constraints on the "Nutritional aspects" tab), silage should be preferred because fermentation decreases nitrate levels (Boyles et al., 2010).

In tropical areas, wheat can be cut at the milky-dough stage (about 30-35% DM). Optimal nutritive value is obtained at the milky stage but forage yield is lower. Ensiling too early may result in a high moisture content and the wheat should then be pre-wilted before ensiling. Ensiling more mature wheat may be difficult as it is dryer and difficult to compact. Moreover, hollow stems contain air, which may prevent desirable anaerobic fermentation and let deleterious fungi and yeast develop. Fungal development may be an issue in wheat silage as it can result in production of mycotoxins (Ashbell et al., 2001).

Ensiling wheat with another crop may be a valuable option. Wheat can be sown in mixture with legumes such as vetch (Vicia sativa), pea (Pisum sativum) or sulla (Hedysarum coronarium) in the proportion of 3:1 (wheat: legume). Mixing cereal and legumes has various advantages, such as preventing legumes from collapsing, decreasing plant diseases and increasing the C:N ratio which is favourable to good quality silage (Ashbell et al., 2001).

Environmental impact 

Double/multiple cropping systems

Double-cropping systems consisting of winter wheat followed by a summer legume, such as soybean, are extensively used in several regions of the USA. However, this practice causes soil water depletion and should be limited, in drought-prone areas, to the wettest years or to a short sequence of years (Northup et al., 2010; Rao et al., 2008). A more sustainable practice is a multicrop rotation system including wheat (fall through spring), soybeans (summer), winter fallow, and short-season spring forage or cover crops. It can help to conserve moisture and to improve soil condition (Northup et al., 2010; Rao et al., 2008). Cereal forages are useful for reducing weeds and diseases in perennial forage crop rotations. Wheat forage is suitable during alfalfa or permanent pasture renovation as it does not compromise legume development (Cash et al., 2007).

Nutritional aspects
Nutritional attributes 

Whole-crop wheat forage has a highly variable composition, depending on stage of maturity, climate and other parameters. In France, crude protein varied between 14.3% (DM) at ear formation to 6-8% at the dough stage (INRA, 2007). In the warm temperate climate of New South Wales, Australia, crude protein content varied between 10% for a spring harvest to more than 30% for an autumn harvest (Fulkerson et al., 2008). Fibre values, as usual, follow an inverse pattern, with an even larger variability (NDF in the 30-50% range for low protein forage and under 40% for the high protein crop.

Potential constraints 

Nitrate poisoning

Like other cereal forages, wheat forage can accumulate nitrates and careful attention must be paid to nitrate content, particularly when feeding pregnant livestock. Forages containing 350-1130 mg/kg (DM basis) of NOnitrogen should be limited to 50% of the total diet for pregnant animals to prevent early term abortion or reduced breeding performance (Cash et al., 2002). In hay, nitrate accumulation may be an issue if high levels of N fertilizer have been applied. Ensiling wheat forage is safer than making hay because it reduces nitrate levels provided that the fermentation process lasts more than 30 days (Boyles et al., 2010).


Wheat pastures are known to cause frothy bloat, which occurs when rumen gasses are trapped in the rumen fluid instead of being removed by eructation. In the USA, frothy bloat is known to cause death in young cattle grazing wheat pastures and high losses have been reported in the past. Bloat typically happens on lush wheat pastures, with low dry matter and fibre content, and high protein and soluble nitrogen fractions. These conditions may occur in autumn or early spring. In order to prevent bloat, hungry cattle should not enter the stand and/or should be supplemented with fibrous roughages (KSU, 1998; Horn et al., 1977).

Grass tetany

Grass tetany generally affects dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep and goats in the temperate regions of the world when they receive inadequate available Mg in the diet (Dalley, 2004). Wheat forage, like other lush growing pastures, may have a low Mg content after intensive growth even during winter (KSU, 1998; Bohman et al., 1983). This problem often occurs when the crop has received large amounts of water (rainy spring) and has been heavily fertilized with nitrogen and potassium because Mg is leached by water and fertilizer. In some cases, the Mg level is adequate, but Mg availability is reduced if the K:(Ca+Mg) ratio exceeds 2.2 (Agdex, 2009). Livestock grazing unbalanced pasture, or pasture with a low Mg content, have low Mg in their blood. This phenomenon is of utmost importance in high producing animals, which require more Mg for fat mobilization and subsequent milk production. The recommended safe level of Mg in forage is 2.0 g/kg DM for lactating or pregnant cattle (Grunes et al., 1970; NRC, 2000). However, if N and K contents are high, the Mg concentration should be at least 2.5 g/kg DM (Grunes et al., 1984). This results in grass tetany symptoms: nervousness, twitching and further staggering, collapsing and convulsions that may cause death (Dalley, 2004). It is possible to prevent the problem by applying Mg fertilizer to the sward. It is also possible to feed the animal with an adequate mineral supplement. An adequate energy feed supplementation may also help in solving the problem (Agdex, 2009; KSU, 1998).

Hay irritation

Rough-awned varieties of wheat may cause soreness and irritation to the mouth, lips, gums and lower surface of the tongue in cattle. Ensiling (rather than baling) such crops may alleviate this problem. This issue may also be reduced by harvesting at the late-boot stage rather than at the dough stage (Boyles et al., 2010).


The maximum recommended inclusion rate of wheat forage in ruminant diets is 40% of the forage intake. Wheat forage is preferable to barley forage, as the latter forms a tough grain coat once the crop exceeds 35% DM, resulting in poor digestibility (Ewing, 1997). Some wheat forage cultivars may have a higher nutritive value than triticale (Cash et al., 2009).


Because wheat forage contains high concentrations of nitrogen, non-protein N, digestible dry matter and water, beef cattle and sheep require an adaptation period before positive body weight gains are seen. A daily gain lower than average during the first 14 days of wheat pasture grazing by stocker calves and lambs is most likely the result of less DMI by non-adapted animals and is not due to diet digestibility or N metabolism (Phillips et al., 2008).

Beef cattle

Consumption of small amounts of low quality roughage by growing cattle on wheat pasture did not alter wheat forage intake or utilization (Mader et al., 1986). Quebracho condensed tannins have been proposed as a potential supplement for stocker cattle-wheat systems, as it can decrease the impact of frothy bloat and increase body weight gains (Min et al., 2006).


At pasture, in vivo digestibility in young crossbred sheep grazing dual-purpose wheat crops was high (84-85%). Total intake was between 3.7 and 4.0% of live weight (Dove et al., 2009). Dual-purpose wheat planted in the autumn can be grazed within about five weeks and support about 10 sheep/ha without impairing the wheat as a grain crop (Göhl, 1982).

Providing supplementary DM to lambs grazing fresh wheat forage does not increase lamb performance (Phillips et al., 1995). In young sheep grazing wheat pasture, there were marked live-weight gain responses (30-50%) to mineral supplements based on NaCl, CaCO3 and MgO (Dove et al., 2009).

No significant differences were found in preferences of sheep for six different wheat cultivars (Dove et al., 2009).


Wheat forage can be ensiled with a DM content either low (35%) or high (50-60%). When ensiled at high DM, urea treatment at 20-30 kg per tonne of fresh forage increases its protein content (Ewing, 1997). The digestibility of ensiled wheat forage is significantly reduced (up to -2.3%) compared to fresh forage, depending on forage maturity. When an application of urea of more than 40 kg/t DM at harvest was made, there were no differences in digestibility between urea-treated forage and fresh forage. Treatment of whole-crop wheat forage with urea at harvest can be an effective method of preserving its nutritive value (Hill et al., 1999). Wheat forage preservation and digestibility can be improved with silage additives. For instance, a mixture of amylase and sulphur salts was shown to increase digestibility of DM and fibre of wheat silage-based diets fed to Holstein heifers (Froetschel et al., 1991).

Beef cattle

Although differences in average daily gain of beef calves were not noted, increased maturity at harvest and preservation as silage caused differences in DMI and digestibility of DM and NDF when included at 40% of the diet, when compared to a similar diet based on wheat hay (Beck et al., 2009).

The energy values of several whole crop silages, made from barley, wheat and triticale, harvested at the milk-dough stage with 30-35% DM, were lower or close to those of grass silages (Emile et al., 2007).

Wheat and legume silages

The energy value and particularly the nitrogen value of silages made from cereal forage and legume mixtures were higher than those of silages made from cereal forages alone, and comparable or better than those of grass silages (Baumont et al., 2009). For instance, the intake of dairy cows was improved by 1.9 kg DM and the milk production by 1.8 kg with silage made from a mixture of triticale, oat, pea and vetch compared to pure triticale silage (Emile et al., 2008). However, the replacement of 50% maize silage by a cereal/legume silage in the diet of dairy cows depressed intake and production by 7 and 6% respectively (Brunschwig et al., 2008).


The traditional practice of raising pigs outdoors on forage and pasture has been coming back in numerous countries as an alternative approach to pig farming. For example EU standards of organic pig production require that breeding animals have access to pasture (Blair, 2007). In addition to environmental and societal benefits, its main advantage is a reduction in feed costs, particularly for gestating sows (Duval, 1993). However, cereal pastures are too fibrous for young pigs and may not supply enough protein and energy for growth. In all cases, access to concentrates, minerals and vitamins may be required (Blair, 2007). Wheat sown in early spring or late autumn can be grazed after 2 or 3 months and support 25-30 pigs (45 kg)/ha. Wheat forage is more palatable to pigs than rye forage, though the latter is generally more productive (Duval, 1993; Pickett et al., 1965). A comparison of the performance of growing pigs fed concentrates with or without access to a winter wheat pasture showed that pasture supplied some energy but not enough to affect growth significantly. Pasture was also an insignificant source of protein when performance or feed conversion were the response criteria. Pasture feeding resulted in poorer feed/gain ratios, which could be the result of increased energy expended for grazing and movement over a larger area (Baird et al., 1971).


In Australia, an experiment studied the impact of free-range laying hens when integrated in a crop and pasture rotation system. Laying hens stocked at 110/ha foraged extensively in the wheat stubble from January to May and had an excellent level of performance. Soil nitrate levels were higher after grazing, due to animal droppings. This trial indicated that integrating hens into a crop and pasture rotation system could assist in weed control and increase soil fertility (Miao et al., 2005).

Nutritional tables
Tables of chemical composition and nutritional value 

Avg: average or predicted value; SD: standard deviation; Min: minimum value; Max: maximum value; Nb: number of values (samples) used

Main analysis Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
Crude protein % DM 5.4 3.0 1.6 10.1 8
Crude fibre % DM 35.1 1
NDF % DM 54.2 9.8 36.5 63.7 13
ADF % DM 39.2 5.1 26.9 42.2 8
Lignin % DM 5.6 1.0 5.0 8.2 10
Ether extract % DM 1.3 1
Ash % DM 9.0 1.5 7.2 11.5 11
Gross energy MJ/kg DM 17.6 *
Ruminant nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
OM digestibility, Ruminant % 58.0 7.4 42.5 65.3 12 *
Energy digestibility, ruminants % 54.6 *
DE ruminants MJ/kg DM 9.6 *
ME ruminants MJ/kg DM 7.8 *
Nitrogen digestibility, ruminants % 58.9 24.9 35.6 89.0 6

The asterisk * indicates that the average value was obtained by an equation.


Arieli et al., 1989; Egan et al., 1975; Egan, 1974; Hogan et al., 1967; Kennedy et al., 1992; Sen, 1938

Last updated on 24/10/2012 00:45:21

Main analysis Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Dry matter % as fed 91.0 1.3 87.3 93.8 438  
Crude protein % DM 4.2 0.7 2.6 6.0 428  
Crude fibre % DM 41.5 2.1 36.6 46.2 438  
NDF % DM 77.5 4.2 65.4 86.0 85 *
ADF % DM 50.0 3.5 43.3 57.0 80 *
Lignin % DM 7.2 1.0 5.3 9.7 203  
Ether extract % DM 1.4 0.5 0.7 2.8 53  
Ash % DM 6.7 1.2 4.4 10.0 433  
Starch (polarimetry) % DM 1.0 0.6 0.1 2.6 114  
Total sugars % DM 1.2 0.9 0.3 5.7 138  
Gross energy MJ/kg DM 18.5 0.6 16.0 18.5 18 *
Minerals Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Calcium g/kg DM 4.8 1.1 2.8 7.9 226  
Phosphorus g/kg DM 0.7 0.2 0.3 1.2 226  
Potassium g/kg DM 11.2 4.6 5.4 21.2 40  
Sodium g/kg DM 0.1 0.1 0.0 0.4 143  
Magnesium g/kg DM 1.2 1.2 0.4 5.4 18  
Manganese mg/kg DM 32 19 12 60 5  
Zinc mg/kg DM 17 7 8 28 10  
Copper mg/kg DM 4 2 2 9 10  
Iron mg/kg DM 184 201 52 643 8  
Secondary metabolites Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Tannins (eq. tannic acid) g/kg DM 2.5       1  
Tannins, condensed (eq. catechin) g/kg DM 0.2       1  
Ruminant nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
OM digestibility, ruminants % 48.4 4.8 38.7 55.2 27 *
Energy digestibility, ruminants % 45.2   37.4 46.7 2 *
DE ruminants MJ/kg DM 8.3         *
ME ruminants MJ/kg DM 6.8   5.4 6.8 2 *
ME ruminants (gas production) MJ/kg DM 5.0 0.9 4.1 5.8 3  
Nitrogen digestibility, ruminants % 3.5 49.5 -69.3 85.0 15 *
a (N) % 38.4       1  
b (N) % 25.5       1  
c (N) h-1 0.056       1  
Nitrogen degradability (effective, k=4%) % 53         *
Nitrogen degradability (effective, k=6%) % 51         *
Pig nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Energy digestibility, growing pig % 12.3         *
DE growing pig MJ/kg DM 2.3         *
MEn growing pig MJ/kg DM 2.0         *
NE growing pig MJ/kg DM 1.1         *
Rabbit nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Energy digestibility, rabbit % 18.8         *
DE rabbit MJ/kg DM 3.5 2.7 1.2 6.4 3  
MEn rabbit MJ/kg DM 3.3         *
Nitrogen digestibility, rabbit % 60.0 33.9 35.1 98.7 3  

The asterisk * indicates that the average value was obtained by an equation.


AFZ, 2011; Ait Amar, 2005; Alawa et al., 1984; Alibes et al., 1990; Al-Masry, 2003; Arieli et al., 1989; Aufrère et al., 1988; Belibasakis, 1984; Belibasakis, 1984; Carvalho et al., 2006; Chandra et al., 1971; Chermiti, 1997; CIRAD, 1991; Das et al., 1999; de Blas et al., 1989; De Boever et al., 1994; Demarquilly, 1987; Denek et al., 2004; Doyle et al., 1990; Dutta et al., 2004; Egan et al., 1975; Egan, 1974; Fernandez Carmona et al., 1996; Friesecke, 1970; Gippert et al., 1988; Gowda et al., 2004; Grimit, 1984; Habib et al., 1995; Haddad et al., 2001; Horton, 1979; IAV, 2009; Ibrahim et al., 1990; Jain et al., 1980; Kamra et al., 1989; Khanum et al., 2007; Kromann et al., 1977; Lindberg et al., 1982; Lindberg, 1981; Lopez et al., 2005; Maan et al., 2003; Maertens et al., 1981; Mann et al., 1988; Mason et al., 1988; McCann, 1985; McCartney et al., 2006; Miraglia et al., 1985; Molénat, 1995; Morgan et al., 1984; Mosi et al., 1985; Nandra et al., 1993; Noblet et al., 1989; Nsahlai et al., 1996; Parthasathy et al., 1982; Peteva-Vantcheva et al., 1976; Pozy et al., 1996; Rasool et al., 1998; Sehu et al., 1998; Shand et al., 1983; Sharma et al., 2008; Shi et al., 1993; Singh et al., 2005; Singh et al., 2011; Sudana et al., 1986; Tisserand et al., 1989; Turgut et al., 2004; Wainman et al., 1984; Weston et al., 1988; Weston et al., 1989; Weston, 1989; Wolter et al., 1979; Wolter et al., 1982

Last updated on 11/08/2014 00:20:32

Main analysis Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Dry matter % as fed 29.5 5.9 19.1 39.2 24  
Crude protein % DM 11.0 4.5 7.3 24.4 32  
Crude fibre % DM 28.0 4.8 15.6 33.5 24  
NDF % DM 56.4 16.0 37.7 81.6 10  
ADF % DM 31.9 11.0 19.9 52.0 9  
Lignin % DM 4.6 3.1 1.9 8.0 3  
Ether extract % DM 2.7 0.9 1.4 3.9 11  
Ash % DM 8.2 2.2 5.5 12.9 29  
Starch (enzymatic) % DM 7.8 8.2 0.4 21.2 12  
Water-soluble carbohydrates % DM 10.6 3.4 3.6 15.3 15  
Gross energy MJ/kg DM 17.9         *
Minerals Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
Calcium g/kg DM 3.8 0.8 3.0 4.8 5  
Phosphorus g/kg DM 2.6 0.6 2.0 3.4 5  
Ruminant nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb  
OM digestibility, ruminants % 69.2 9.0 63.9 84.6 9 *
Energy digestibility, ruminants % 66.1         *
DE ruminants MJ/kg DM 11.9         *
ME ruminants MJ/kg DM 9.6         *
Nitrogen digestibility, ruminants % 63.1 7.5 56.3 78.2 8  
a (N) % 44.0       1  
b (N) % 54.0       1  
c (N) h-1 0.020       1  
Nitrogen degradability (effective, k=4%) % 62         *
Nitrogen degradability (effective, k=6%) % 58         *

The asterisk * indicates that the average value was obtained by an equation.


Alibes et al., 1990; Blümmel et al., 1993; Demarquilly, 1970; Djouvinov et al., 1998; Fulkerson et al., 2008; Horn et al., 1989; Patel, 1966; Van Wyk et al., 1951

Last updated on 11/08/2014 00:22:59

Datasheet citation 

Heuzé V., Tran G., Baumont R., 2015. Wheat forage. Feedipedia, a programme by INRA, CIRAD, AFZ and FAO. http://www.feedipedia.org/node/363 Last updated on October 14, 2015, 14:25

English correction by Tim Smith (Animal Science consultant) and Hélène Thiollet (AFZ)