Winter feed options

Experiencing a pasture feed gap through the winter months? Where seasonal conditions allow, a winter forage crop can provide sufficient feed to get through the winter months without needing to purchase feed. The total amount of feed available for your livestock will be influenced by the type of crop, variety, disease resistance and sowing time.

Options include:

  • Oats traditionally have been the crop of choice for winter forage
  • Wheat varieties that have the best resistance to a range of diseases (Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus, leaf and stem rusts etc).
  • Barley if early sowing is not available, barley can be a good option.
  • Triticale ideal if feed quantity (bulk) is important at first grazing
  • Ryegrass (annual/biennial types) viable alternative to oats
  • Brassicas are slower to reach first grazing but provide high quality feed.

How to select a winter feed option?

We are now well and truly into our hotter summer months, and some areas are surprisingly dry considering the rainfall only a few months ago. Going forward it is very important to start considering what feed is going to be on offer, quantity, and when it will be at its best quality.

Start with an assessment

If you’re not sure where to start take an assessment of each paddock individually. What pasture is there and when will it produces its best feed, considering quantity and quality. It is also important to consider livestock feed demands, how much and when. Once you have an overall summary you can start to plan your grazing management for the next 4-7 months. This will help highlight any gaps you may have in meeting nutritional requirements you may have or any oversupply, should you be so lucky.

Work on your feed gaps

If a feed gap has been identified winter forage crop are well worth considering. There are many forms of winter forage crop and most producers have tried it at some stage. The key to getting the best bang for your buck is to ensure the forage will meet the nutritional requirements of the livestock. Think about what months their feed demand will be high? For example, weaning or lactating cows with big calves, single or twin bearing ewes. Think about what feed will be available for first calve heifers or pregnant cows during their third trimester through to calving? Lactating cows and ewes have available with a large young drawing from her. What month is planned for weaning? Nutritional requirements will increase as they grow to become high.

Match to your forage options

Now that you have established what feed you need when you can use this to match to your forage options.

Using oats as an example, as this would be the most traditional forage used on the Northern Tablelands. There are a number of things to consider when selecting a variety, this comes down to agronomic factors such as early dry matter production, grazing recovery, growth habit, maturity and soil constraints.

If ewes are planned to be joined in April, their nutritional demands will be increasing over the winter and into spring, at joining. The feed demand is critical here to ensure they have a target fat score of 3, this is especially important for twin bearing ewes. For these feed demands in April onwards you will need to consider a mid to late maturing variety to prolong the potential of the forage maturing to head.

Multiple grazing

Do you want more than one grazing from the crop? Consider the grazing recovery and also the growth habit of varieties. The more prostrate varieties, such as Nile and Blackbutt have a lower growth point and can be grazed lower to the ground, down to as low as 5cm as opposed to erect varieties, down to 10cm without damaging the plant and limiting its regrowth.

You may choose to have a slightly staggered feed availability, choosing a quick dry matter variety to produce early dry matter prior to winter and possibly a slower option if you have ample pasture available and wish to utilise it prior to moving to a forage crop.

Planting considerations

Another factor you may need to consider is when it can be planted, is the equipment easily accessible or will you need to rely on a contractor. Sowing times are important to ensure the best opportunity for establishment and growth. Can the paddock be physically planted if the season turns wet?

Some varieties such as Nile and Blackbutt are common on the tablelands as they can be sown from as early as late January in the higher regions and late February towards the slopes and as late as March.

These varieties also have a late grain maturity, although differing speed of dry matter production. Eurabbie is another option that offer a later sowing window, late maturity and also quick early dry matter production.

Sowing too early in hot areas where the soil temperature is above 25*C will result in patchy establishment. A sowing depth of 5cm is optimum, if dry and needing to chase moisture oats can be sown down to 7cm.

Sowing rates for oats range from 80-120kg/ha for grazing. Higher rates will supply rapid growth and high dry matter yield, permitting good growing conditions, soil moisture and nutrition. It is recommended to use higher rates in paddocks where weed burdens are high, moisture is adequate or forecast to be a wet winter.

Grazing can commerce to as early as 6-8 weeks after planting depending variety and permitting good growing conditions.

Disease, weeds, vigour and viability

Disease resistance is always desirable. Rusts (leaf and stem) and Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV), yes in oats, are common and are of particular concern on the Northern Tablelands. Selecting varieties for resistance, knowing the paddock history and seed treatment are advisable for minimising losses.

When buying seed it is important to consider weed seeds that may come with it. Buying seed with a commodity vendor declaration is always best. It can also be useful to request a germination and vigor test. The germination test measures the percentage of viable seeds, where the vigor reflects the ability of those seeds to perform in field conditions that are often less than optimum.

Consider your soil’s health

Soil heath is always an important factor, pH, aluminium and nutrition will determine the success of the forage. If aluminium is an issue look for a more tolerant variety such as Blackbutt, Eurabbie, Nile or Bass.

Ensure nutrition is not the limiting factor for any establishing crop or pasture. If you are going to spend the time and money on establishing forage make sure you put some ‘fuel in the tank’ and don’t let nutrition be the limiting factor. Phosphorus and Sulphur are critical for any establishing seedling for root and tip development. Nitrogen is what drives dry matter growth, along with moisture and sunlight. A soil test will quickly and relatively cheaply indicate if there are any soil health or critical irregularities.

Variety options

Triticale is an excellent option for later sowing times and when looking for quick and high yielding forage at that first graze, often out yielding other winter cereals, grazing recovery may not be as high. It has a wide soil tolerance. Dual purpose wheats are a great option in areas of acid soils and aluminium presence and low fertility. Barley is an excellent option when later sowing, in March – April, producing a large quick bulk of feed. Ryegrass is another excellent winter forage option, providing quick high-quality feed.

There are a large range of brassicas that can provide winter – spring forage offering a species rotation particularly if disease or pests have been an issue in the past.

Crop options


Traditionally, oats have been the crop of choice for winter forage. For overall forage production, oats will generally produce more feed than other winter forage crops. Variety selection depends on a range of agronomic features, particularly maturity, growth habit and disease susceptibility.

Nile and Blackbutt are two varieties well suited to the Northern Tablelands. They are late maturing varieties which can be sown earlier. Their growth is also more prostrate, meaning the growing point is closer to the ground. The closer the growing point is to the ground, the lower you can graze without damaging the plant.

For these, and other late maturing varieties, sow from February onwards. Earlier sown crops will result in greater dry matter production prior to winter, where seasonal conditions allow. For earlier maturing varieties, sow slightly later (March - April) to avoid the crops going to head prior to winter.

Sowing rates for grazing oats range from 80 - 120kg/ha on the Tablelands.

Selecting varieties with good disease resistance is desirable. On the Tablelands, Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus and rust (leaf and stem) can be of particular concern. Selecting resistant varieties is important in ensuring it does not reduce your productivity. For susceptible varieties, seed treatment is advisable to minimise forage and grain yield loss. Additionally, fungal seed treatments are important if running crop through to grain.

Grazing can commence once plants are well anchored – usually 6 to 8 weeks after emergence depending on variety. For quick regrowth, keep adequate leaf area (more than 1000 – 1500 kg dry matter/ha). Don’t graze erect varieties below 10 cm, whilst prostrate types can be grazed down to 5 cm.

Cattle in a paddock of oats


Dual purpose winter wheats are another forage option. They are not as tolerant of highly acid soils, moderate to high aluminum levels or low fertility soils, as oats.

To achieve higher winter dry matter production, they must be sown early. Late January to March is ideal given good soil moisture and mild temperatures. Sowing rates range from 80 - 120 kg/ha.

There is an array of varieties available. For early sowing select the late maturing varieties. Also, where possible, select varieties that have the best resistance to a range of diseases (Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus, leaf and stem rusts etc). Some varieties suited to the Northern Tablelands are Mackellar, Illabo, DS Bennett, RGT Accor, Manning, Wedgetail and Kittyhawke. Not all varieties are awnless – those that are, can be grazed longer at the end of the season without the risk of health concerns caused by awns.

Grazing can commence when plants are well rooted and can’t be easily pulled out by hand or livestock. This is approximately 8 weeks after emergence, so slightly slower than oats. To maximise grain yield after grazing, remove stock at the end of tillering. In many cases this is a compromise between forage and grain yields.


If early sowing is not possible, barley can be a good option for winter feed. When sown mid-March/April, barley will provide a quicker and bigger bulk of feed during winter than oats. The disadvantage is that barley will finish growth at the end of the year earlier than most oat varieties.

Sowing rates range from 80 to 100 kg/ha depending on soil type and fertility. Common varieties include Urambie, Moby and Dictator 2. Before selecting a variety check for best disease resistance.

Commencement of grazing is similar to other winter cereals – make sure it is well anchored and can’t be easily pulled out by hand or livestock. This is usually 6 to 8 weeks.


Triticale is sown at similar times to barley - mid March/April for winter feed production. If feed quantity (bulk) is important at first grazing, triticale will out yield the other winter cereals. Although recovery from grazing is satisfactory, it does not recover as well as oats, wheat and barley. Triticale has a wider soil adaptation compared to the cereals mentioned above.

Sowing rates are 90 - 120 kg/ha. As triticale doesn’t tiller as much as the other main winter cereals, sowing rates tend to be higher.

Varieties include Cartwheel, Crackerjack 2, Endeavor and Wonambi. Check varieties for resistance to various diseases. Check for awn length – some varieties are semi-awnless.

Commencement of grazing is similar to other winter cereals – make sure it is well anchored and can’t be easily pulled out by hand or livestock. This is usually 6 to 8 weeks.

A guide to stocking rates is 1000 kg of livestock weight/ha.

The addition of sodium and magnesium blocks/licks during grazing can significantly improve livestock weight gains.

Winter cereals that produce large awns can cause mouth injury to livestock and should be avoided for hay production or when head emergence under grazing cannot be controlled. These cereals include cereal rye and some of the wheat, barley and triticale varieties.

Ryegrass (annual/biennial types)

Annual/biennial ryegrasses can be a viable alternative to oats in most circumstances. It is not normally sown as early as oats as it has to be sown shallower because of the smaller seed size. Ryegrass has a higher risk of failure than oats, if sown in February.

For good winter feed bulk, it should be sown in March. Later sowings may result in inadequate winter feed, with maximum production occurring in spring/early summer.

A range of varieties are available. Select the maturity type to suit the sowing time and grazing period required. The main disease of concern is rust but there are resistant varieties.

Sowing rates are typically 10 to 20kg/ha, depending on the variety. These types of ryegrasses are grouped into diploid and tetraploid. The seed size is larger for the tetraploids so sowing rates are usually 20 – 40% higher than the diploid types.

Ryegrasses are 3 leaf plants, in that each tiller will have no more than 3 green leaves. Grazing can occur when they have reached the 3-leaf stage which is usually about 1 to 2 weeks slower than oats. The feed quality of ryegrass is slightly better than that of oats.


There are a range of forage brassicas that provide winter/spring feed. The main groups are forage brassica (rape), hybrids/leafy turnips and turnips. Compared to the winter cereals they are slower to reach first grazing depending on type and sowing times vary from 8 to 16 weeks. They do provide high quality feed with protein levels of 15 – 25% for the leaves and 10 – 15% for bulbs.

Sowing times can range from spring through to mid-autumn (September to March). Examples of forage brassica/rape are Winfred, Goliath, SF Greenland and Mainstar. Some hybrid/leafy turnips are Pasja II, Appin, SF Pacer, Hunter and for turnips there is Australian Purple Top, Rival, and SFG2. The leafy turnips can be mixed with the annual/biannual ryegrasses.

Sowing rates will depend on the brassica type. The forage brassicas and hybrid/leafy types are sown at 3 – 5 kg/ha, whilst turnips range from 0.5 – 2 kg/ha.

Grazing depends on the brassica type. Forage brassica (rape) is grazed when plants are fully mature which is indicated by leaf colour change (purple/bronze); hybrid/leafy turnips require early grazing for most types (6 – 8 weeks) otherwise they lose palatability and quality; turnips are grazed when bulbs are fully formed.

Find out more

If this has sparked more questions than answers that is okay, you’re on your way to making some great winter forage decisions. For detailed information on selecting the most suitable variety for your needs, access the NSW DPI winter crop variety guide 2023 here.

Contact your region-specific expert.

Northern Tablelands
Further summaries on winter forage options for the Northern Tablelands can be found here: Winter forage crop options for the Northern Tablelands

  • Georgie Oakes, Senior Land Services Officer (Pastures and Plant Biosecurity), Northern Tablelands
  • NSW DPI Winter Crop Variety Guide 2019

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