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Deciding What Small Grains to Plant

How to choose between wheat, barley, rye and oats.

Used as a cover crop and for grain and silage, small grains are quite versatile and therefore a popular choice for farmers. But which small grain is best for your own situation? We caught up with Southern States Cooperative Seed Production Manager Jason Hinton for his expertise on which grains grow best under different types of circumstances.


Growers by far choose wheat over any other small grain. Wheat has many different varieties growers can choose from, making it easy to find the perfect type for almost any situation.

Because of its popularity, crop protection products to use on the crop are less difficult to find. "Wheat is a well-represented crop in that research has been geared towards it, making it easier for growers to find products they can use," says Hinton.

Farmers typically earn more extra income in the winter from wheat than from other grains.


Farmers hail barley for its use as a good cover crop. "Barley is the first small grain harvested of the season, allowing for an early planting of soybeans and sorghum," says Hinton. He advises that timing of the barley harvest does not allow for corn, however.

Although mostly used as a cover crop, some growers turn to barley for hay production for animals. Barley prices have been down recently, making it difficult to grow as a grain crop right now, but Hinton predicts that this may change in the future. In the Carolinas, the large hog industry has had to barge in grain, which could push the need for more corn substitutes. Barley might fill that role.


Growers predominately use rye as a cover crop for its ability to stabilize soil. Very little rye ends up as grain for use and so it's not dependent on a market price. Some rye ends up as silage or hay, but not much, says Hinton.

Rye can thrive on land where other grains would struggle, making it a cheaper alternative to other small grains. In addition, the seed varieties do not vary from each other much, resulting in a less expensive seed.

"There are several states who pay growers to plant cover crops," says Hinton. "Harvesting these crops for profit is not permitted, so many growers turn to rye in these cases."


About half of farmers using oats grow it for grain, while the other half grow it for animal feed, says Hinton. A specialty market has grown for oat silage or hay cuttings for their animals. Regardless of the end use, oats are always carried to harvest.

Research has produced many different types of oat seed varieties. "Oat farmers pay the most attention to cold resistance, disease resistance and stalk strength when deciding on a seed variety," says Hinton. Oats used for silage or hay grow taller than those used for grain, which typically develop shorter and sturdier.

Even with a lot of difference in plant material and height, oats tend to yield well, although they will not usually bring in as good a price as wheat.

Overall, growers determining which small grain fits best with their needs should first determine what they ultimately want their end result to be, says Hinton. Southern States representatives can help farmers analyze the technical information on the many varieties of small grain seeds to find the best option. "We can help growers find a good fit for any situation," Hinton says.

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