Cash Crop: Winter wheat brings green in more ways than one
As the small white flakes fall to the already powder-covered ground, haired-up cattle venture out, plowing their own paths through the pasture. These cattle are on the hunt for forage, searching for a food source that can get them through the winter.
Similarly, cattlemen across the country are constantly on the hunt for the best feed for their cattle during these tough months, one meeting their herd’s nutritional needs without breaking the bank.
Gordon Jamison, owner of 20,000 acres and a Hereford cow-calf operation, is one of the many cattle ranchers who believes wheat is the solution. In Quinter, Kansas, Jamison said his cattle need more feed during the winter to keep up normal bodily functions.
“I think winter is the critical time to keep condition on cattle,” Jamison said. “We find that wheat is the near perfect feed when we have it.”
Dr. Twig Marston, field beef nutritionist said that as temperatures drop and wind chill sets in, cattle need more energy to stay in the proper thermoneutral zone and keep up performance levels.
When wheat is in its growth stage, Marston said it has 20 percent-plus crude protein and a high moisture content. As the plant matures, the crop’s nutrient content does decrease, but its winter annual growth cycle makes it an excellent option for grazing in the winter.
“Wheat possesses the opportunity for growth prior to freezing temperatures,” Marston said. “It’s a really good, complete kind of forage system in the winter.” He said the crop needs a wet season. Without at least a small amount of rain, the crop does not grow to its full potential, Jamison said. When the winter lacks moisture, he said cattle on wheat will require some sort of feed supplement.
And unfortunately, in his part of Kansas, Jamison said he cannot always rely strictly on winter wheat. If he does not plant at the right time or have enough rainfall before the cold months, Jamison said his cattle will need more than just the grazing crop on its own.
Wheat can withstand the winter weather, but it does have some particular conditions in which it needs to truly thrive.
John McCurry of McCurry Angus in Burton, Kansas said wheat grows best in at least 50-degree weather and when rain comes during the colder months. While wheat does possess the ability to “go to sleep and come back alive again” during a freeze, ranchers still need to be able to try to balance their animals’ needs with predictions of how future weather might affect their crops.
Jamison said this particular crop is the only one he knows of that will “stay green through to winter.” He respects wheat for its ability to freeze down but maintain its color and nutritional value. While it might lose some of its volume when the weather reaches those freezing temperatures, Jamison describes wheat as a “win-win crop.”
“Wheat is very high in protein,” Jamison said. “It supplies more than cattle actually need. If you have plenty of it, there’s no better way to put weight on cattle.”
McCurry said wheat “packs a punch” nutritionally for his cattle while still helping keep the costs of his operation down. Wheat is a crop McCurry said can grow through the winter months at an economical price.
McCurry stresses the importance of keeping wheat grazed down. Besides shorter wheat growing better, he said bites of shorter wheat are denser and more beneficial for the animals.
Jamison believes cattle grazing on the crop is also advantageous for the plant. Keeping wheat fields grazed down prevents disease and wind erosion, he said.
Grazing his cattle on wheat during the winter decreased McCurry’s operating costs. “Any day the animal is harvesting and processing what they eat, and you’re not hauling them off, you’re better off,” he said.
McCurry said one major component of feed costs is feed supplementation, but Marston says cattle on wheat pastures often require minimal supplementation, if any. Cattle might require a protein or feed supplement to improve feed efficiency when first getting turned out on wheat, he said.
“You want to also consider your forage availability if you’ve got so many cattle on a certain land mass with a certain percentage of plant growth,” Marston said. “Other forages or grain supplementations can help stretch the grazing.”
In regards to other costs of grazing on wheat pasture, Marston said there are many different management decisions a producer can make to “personalize the grazing system.”
If grazing cattle on wheat the producer owns, Marston said there is the option of utilizing the crop for both grazing and grain yields. To reap the full benefits of grain yields, he said cattle need to be turned out once the plant is rooted down and then pulled off when it becomes hollow-stemmed.
If a rancher is planning to lease wheat pasture, Marston said the list of various financial decisions grows. Pasture land can be rented on a cost-to-gain basis, where cattle are weighed after coming off the grazing land and one would pay so much per pound gained. Another option is to pay per acre, a choice where Marston said ranchers will have to consider stocking rates and density.
As with any land-rental agreement, the contract should spell out who will handle pasture upkeep, fence management and watering options. While there are a lot of components to managing a cattle herd on wheat pasture, Marston said better management leads to better returns.
In the end, however, McCurry describes all setbacks with this crop as “controllable,” and considers wheat to be a reliable food source for cattle during the winter.
Another option for a winter grazing crop is triticale, a wheat hybrid Jamison said is highly comparable to wheat. Jamison describes triticale as a rye-wheat cross and the only crop he considers to even be in the same realm as wheat when it comes to winter grazing options.
“It’s exactly like wheat in the value it provides,” he said. “Except with the same amount of moisture, it will produce 10-20 percent more forage.”
Then why not plant all triticale? Jamison said it’s about “not putting all your eggs in one basket.” Triticale is less hardy in the winter compared to wheat and lacks the grain value wheat provides, he said.
As a cash crop, wheat provides extra income for his operation and becomes the answer to more than just the winter grazing problem, because it can still be harvested as a cash crop in the summer.