In the Mallee region of north-western Victoria, Australia, there is very little grazing of crops that are intended for grain production. The success of dual-purpose crops in other regions in south-eastern Australia with higher and more evenly distributed rainfall has driven interest in assessing the performance of dual-purpose cereals in the region. Five experiments were established in five consecutive years (2009–13) in the southern Mallee to measure the forage production and grain yield and quality response in wheat and barley to grazing by sheep or mechanical defoliation. The first three experiments focused on spring cultivars sown from late April to June, and the last two on winter cultivars planted from late February to early March. Cereal crops provided early and nutritious feed for livestock, with earlier sowing increasing the amount of dry matter available for winter grazing, and barley consistently produced more dry matter at the time of grazing or defoliation than wheat. However, the grain-production response of cereals to grazing or defoliation was variable and unpredictable. Effects on yield varied from –0.7 to +0.6 t/ha, with most site × year × cultivar combinations neutral (23) or negative (14), and few positive (2). Changes in grain protein were generally consistent with yield dilution effects. Defoliation increased the percentage of screenings (grains passing a 2-mm sieve) in three of five experiments. Given the risk of reduced grain yield and quality found in this study, and the importance of grain income in determining farm profitability in the region, it is unlikely that dual-purpose use of current cereal cultivars will become widespread under existing grazing management guidelines for dual-purpose crops (i.e. that cereal crops can be safely grazed once anchored, until Zadoks growth stage Z30, without grain yield penalty). It was demonstrated that early-sown winter wheat cultivars could produce more dry matter for grazing (0.4–0.5 t/ha) than later sown spring wheat and barley cultivars popular in the region (0.03–0.21 t/ha), and development of regionally adapted winter cultivars may facilitate adoption of dual-purpose cereals on mixed farms.