Oh yeah, there’s some risk, too
By: Loretta Sorensen
Cattlemen who graze wheat will know the basics of their strategy remain the same from year to year. However, with all the variables involved, no two plans will be exactly the same. “Weather, grain prices, the amount of fall forage accumulated in a wheat field and many other aspects of the practice all affect the decision to graze, how many cattle to stock, when they go in and come out,” Ted McCollum, Beef Cattle Specialist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, says. “There are benefits and disadvantages as well as risks for both wheat farmer and stockman.”
McCollum, who’s worked in research and extension at Oklahoma State University and now with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, also works with his family operation which grazes stockers on small grains pasture. In addition to acting as a consultant and educator for beef producers, McCollum has also participated in wheat grazing research. Selection of wheat variety is probably one of the first steps in developing a grazing strategy.
“There are what some refer to as dual purpose wheat varieties,” McCollum explains. “They produce ample forage and provide satisfactory grain yield. The grain farmer would need to determine whether or not they’re planting wheat just for grazing or if they plan to harvest a crop too, and what kind of grain yield they want to achieve.”
An additional wheat characteristic that may be desirable for grain farmers is how well wheat emerges in warmer temperatures in states like Texas. “That will ultimately affect fall forage production,” McCollum continues. “On the opposite end of that is the early or late maturing wheat. Depending on the grazing agreement, one or the other could benefit both grain farmer and beef producer.”
Dale Blasi, Kansas State University Professor and Extension Specialist in beef cattle nutrition and management, notes that grain farmers in his region may increase seed population and fertilization in order to produce highly grazeable wheat stands.
“Some grain farmers who also produce beef reserve ground for grazing wheat, rye or triticale,” Blasi shares. “If their small grain is planted under a center pivot, the producer may be able to put cattle on the grain earlier than grains planted on dryland.”
Because wheat is high in protein and moisture, it can serve as an economic resource for adding weight to calves. “On wheat, light cattle will probably perform just as well as heavier animals because it’s such nutritious forage,” McCollum says. “If I were putting calves on grass, I’d probably purchase heavier animals because lighter weights require more nutrition to add weight.”
PAY FOR THE WEIGHT GAINED
Oklahoma State University Extension Ag Educator, Greg Highfill, says wheat grazing can result in daily average gains of 2 to 2.5 pounds, which makes it an excellent economic grazing resource.
“Before it can be grazed, wheat has to have enough growth to have developed what we refer to as a secondary root system or tillers,” Highfill imparts.
“That causes wheat to be firmly anchored to the soil, reducing any damage due to grazing. Grazing start dates vary greatly from year to year and region to region, depending on weather conditions, moisture levels and the wheat’s growth stage.” McCollum explains that assessing the actual amount of grazeable forage prior to putting cattle on wheat fields in fall is an essential part of wheat grazing strategies in his region.
“Evaluating that forage and knowing how much of it is projected to be available before temperatures drop to a level where the forage is no longer growing is key to selecting a stocking rate,” McCollum says. “If cattle have to be removed from the wheat field before projected gains are met, or producers must provide an alternate feed source, then costs increase and/or performance suffers.”
It’s been quite some time since the majority of wheat farmers charged beef producers per-acre prices for grazing. The most common practice across the country is charging per pound of gain. “There may be a few farmers who still charge per head or per acre,” McCollum says. “But that’s the exception.
Charging per pound of gain benefits the cattle owner because they only pay for weight actually gained. Paying a flat per-acre or per-head fee and not realizing desired gain would be a disadvantage for stockmen. The farmer can also benefit from the gain-based lease because if calves perform, lease payments will generally be higher than those for a per head or per acre lease.” Another common practice in wheat grazing scenarios is the verbal contract, which could increase risk for both beef and grain producers.
“If the agreement is between a grain farmer and beef producer who have a longtime relationship, verbal agreements probably work,” McCollum suggests. “I would encourage putting some terms in writing. Not that it has to be a 15-page, attorney-authored document. But written terms in the event that someone’s memory fails and there’s a question about the original grazing terms.”
Graze-out wheat, a term meaning wheat that is grazed through maturity and not harvested, is common for Southern Plains grain farmers. “The decision to graze out or harvest wheat is based on many factors,” McCollum says. “Selecting the best possible wheat variety for that option could mean planting a late maturing wheat in order to get the most value out of the practice.” Pricing wheat grazing resources can be a complex process. McCollum doesn’t necessarily agree that feedlot cost-of-gain figures provide the best standard for calculating the cost of grazing wheat.
“In some of those comparisons, the figures used for feedlot gain are the figures related to bringing a 700-pound animal to a finish weight of 1,300 pounds,” McCollum says. “In wheat grazing, you’re probably bringing that 400 or 500-pound animal to about 700 or 800 pounds. Animals grazing wheat and those finishing in a feedlot aren’t on the same growth curve.” McCollum adds that animals in a feedlot are developing in a much more consistent environment. “Wheat grazing conditions may be much less predictable than having a feed truck come by twice a day,” McCollum adds. “Accurately assessing that difference is important to fixing a grazing price agreement.”
YEAH, GRAZING WHEAT IS RISKY
Beef producers should also consider the risk of death loss to bloat and carefully monitor animals, especially in the last weeks of the grazing plan. “Any time wheat starts growing rapidly, there’s risk of bloat,” Highfill says. “That’s typically found in spring, around the first of February when temperatures start moderating and wheat comes out of dormancy. Because potential for bloat is so unpredictable, the best precaution is careful monitoring and quick response if an animal does bloat.”
An important risk factor for grain farmers is yield loss. Research at Oklahoma State University has demonstrated that wheat yield can be reduced between 0% and 15%, with the average most years around 8% through wheat grazing. “Certainly some years it could be lower or perhaps higher, depending on weather conditions,” Highfill relates.
“Typically, early planted wheat reduces yield loss. In today’s beef market, the profit realized from the gain in pounds of beef may easily offset yield loss.” In the Southern and High Plains, wheat grazing practices are likely to remain popular regardless of related risks.
“In this area (Texas), there are no other fall grazing resources that provide the gain potential of small grains pasture,” McCollum says. “So it’s the best option for stocker producers here. The strategy also allows producers to accelerate fall calf weight gain to target spring feeder markets.” Blasi says that although the practice isn’t as common in Kansas as in southern states, it still gives beef producers and wheat growers an opportunity to add value to their operation. “With favorable growing conditions, cattle can achieve amazing gains on wheat,” Blasi concludes. “You can’t ignore wheat grazing opportunities when they’re available.