Evaluating Nitrates and Forage Quality in Fall Regrowth of Annual Cereal Forages

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2017: $19,972.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Montana State University Extension
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Tracy Mosley
Montana State University Extension


  • Agronomic: barley, hay, oats, radish (oilseed, daikon, forage), wheat


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, feed management, grazing management, pasture renovation
  • Crop Production: cover crops, crop rotation
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, participatory research, technical assistance, workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: disease vectors
  • Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health


    Annual cereal forages serve an integral role in integrated crop/livestock production systems across the West. Recently, producers have realized the values of annual cereal forages in rotational systems when renovating alfalfa, integrating them into systems to supplement perennial forages, and in cover crop mixes. Cool-season annual cereal forages most widely used in Montana and across the West include barley, wheat, oats, and triticale.

    There are many advantages of growing annual cereal forages including adaptation to cool climates and higher elevations, they are easy to grow with no special equipment required beyond a grain drill, they are productive in dryland and irrigated systems, they provide good nutritional quality to livestock, and they are effective at disrupting weed and disease pest cycles and rodent problems. With the myriad benefits of using cool-season annual cereal forages, there are also disadvantages. Primary disadvantages include being annual crops that require yearly planting and the potential for nitrate accumulation.

    Nitrates in cereal forages have the potential to cause nitrite poisoning in livestock, which, depending on the severity, can lead to economic losses due to weight loss, abortion, reduced breeding rates, weak calves, reduced milk production, and animal death. Nitrate content of cereal forages can be assessed both qualitatively and quantitatively. Montana State University Extension developed the Nitrate “QuickTest” protocol for qualitatively evaluating nitrate presence with a diphenylamine/sulfuric acid solution. Additionally, growers send samples to a laboratory to obtain quantitative analyses of nitrate content of cereal forage hay. More recently, the nitrate strip test has been developed at the University of Georgia to obtain qualitative nitrate results that can be used by professionals without a laboratory test. 

    Livestock producers have inquired frequently in the fall with Montana State University Extension offices regarding the nitrate content of cereal grain regrowth, often referred to as volunteer growth. These producers, wishing to capitalize on the new growth, want to better understand the potential for nitrates, but many have little experience grazing it and approach the situation with caution.

    Research regarding the potential for nitrate accumulation in fall regrowth of cereal forages is unavailable and nutrient quality of the feed is limited. Producers have largely relied on Nitrate QuikTests to evaluate the safety of using this feed resource due to its convenience. Additionally, comparisons of the Nitrate QuikTest and quantitative laboratory analyses do not exist for fall cereal growth. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to evaluate the nitrate content of cereal growth in the fall, 2) evaluate the forage quality of the available growth, and 3) evaluate how environmental conditions and crop management strategies impact nitrates and forage quality, and 4) evaluate the accuracy of the Nitrate QuikTest and Quantofix Nitrate Strip Test on fall cereal growth.

    This participatory research project allowed participating producers to run their operations as they normally would, while allowing access to fields for data collection. Production practice information was shared, data was synthesized to obtain results, and solutions and actions were formulated for management.

    Project objectives:

    1. Evaluate nitrate content and forage quality of fall growth of annual cereal forages on five to ten fields per year. 
    2. Compare results of Nitrate QuikTest and Quantofix Nitrate Strip Test to laboratory analyses.
    3. Evaluate effect of soil moisture and environmental conditions on nitrate content of forage.
    4. Educate producers, Extension faculty, and others regarding the potential for nitrates and forage quality of cereal forage fall growth, accuracy of the Nitrate QuikTest and Quantofix Nitrate Strip test, environmental conditions and management actions impacting nitrate levels, and strategies for minimizing risk of economic loss by grazing forages with high nitrates.
    5. Evaluate change in knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes; producer adoptions of recommended strategies; and changes in management by producers as a result of this information.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.