Timing when to cut your oat or forage crop is always based on a compromise between yield and quality. Cutting early will give you the highest feed value of the hay or silage, while late cutting results in the best overall yield. Most growers compromise the two and cut in the flower or bloom stage.
If your primary goal is quality, according to a study we conducted near Turlock in 1985, you could get 12% protein with 31-32% ADF by cutting in the boot stage. However, you would sacrifice 4-6 tons by cutting in the boot stage rather than waiting another 9 days for the flower stage (9-10% protein, 34-35% ADF).
The boot stage is when you can feel a lump in the stalk but the head has not yet emerged from the stem. Over an entire field, there should be a very few seed heads emerging. Heading is when the seed heads have come out of the stalk. A couple of days after that is when flowering occurs on standard varieties. You will see bright yellow things (anthers), about the size and shape of a dash (-), dangling from the seed heads. Be sure they are bright yellow and smooth, because after a day they become dull yellow and shriveled. It is best to look for them in the morning. the oldest flower on an oat is the one at the very top.
Many growers cut oats in the soft dough stage when they are making hay. At this stage, the overall quality will be lower and most of the feed value will be in the grain.
The advantages to cutting for hay in the soft dough are:
Yield is maximized. The moisture content is less so it doesn't take as long to dry. It's later in the season so there is less chance of rain. Much of the horse hay market prefers to see a lot of grain in the hay.
Even with a lot of grain, the total overall quality will be less than flower stage hay. And, if mice eat the grain during storage, feed value can be very low by the time it is fed.
Forage mixes should be cut when the bulk of the mix is in the stage that you want. In most mixes, beardless barley is the first to head out, sometimes a week or more before the rest of the mix. Unless the barley makes up most of the mix, it may be best to cut according to the other components of the mix, usually the oats. Depending on the specific varieties used, the wheat will likely be the last to head out and if you cut the mix when the oats are in the flower stage or sooner, you may never see wheat heads.
Stage of Harvest Study, 1985, Chatom Ranch, Turlock
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November 5, 1999