By David Hunsberger
While in many cases we recommend harvesting small grains at flag leaf stage, in some situations soft dough harvest may be best. Soft dough is a very different stage of maturity from the Feekes scale stage 9 (flag leaf) preferred for high producing dairy cows. The Feekes scale stops at 11 which is the ripening stage; 10.5 is the flowering stage; 10.1 is head emergence. Soft dough refers to the time at which the fully developed grain kernels are moving from the “milk” stage into the hard grain (Feekes 11). If you squeeze a kernel in the milk stage the white starchy liquid will squirt out. However, in soft dough stage the starchy substance will be doughy. At this stage, the plant is assumed to have dried to a point that allows for direct chopping to produce a high starch silage-like feed.
Many producers successfully take small grains at this stage and use it to stretch supplies of corn silage or in some cases to replace corn silage. Barley specifically is attractive under this management because the stover to grain ratio is smaller (more grain less straw) than most other small grains. Additionally, the cell walls are not as thick, making it more digestible. Taller growing species such as wheat and triticale can also be harvested at the soft dough stage, however they have a much larger stover: grain ratio. Also, these grains tend to be much drier at this maturity so proper ensiling is more difficult.
The success here is in direct cut chopping and fast packing. Target 800lbs of tractor weight/ton of silage delivered per hour. If you do not have the packing weight, then consider upright silo storage or Ag bags. (Uprights may benefit from some wet hay crop material on top of small grain silage to assist with packing and air elimination of the last few loads) If you do not have access to a direct cut head for your chopper you can swath the material and then gather it up with your pickup head. If you do this, chase the swather with the chopper so that the material doesn’t dry too fast.