Wheat can be more than just an ingredient for flour. Roddy Allred and Tracy Perkins put their wheat hay up against alfalfa as a quality forage for horses and stocker cattle.
And when wheat prices are low, the protein-rich hay is often a better money-maker than harvesting the wheat for grain.
Both growers farm irrigated and dryland hard red winter wheat in the Texas Panhandle near Wildorado. They also put cattle on wheat in the fall for grazing until the next spring. In many cases, they turn to wheat hay as their supplemental forage during winter.
Allred often cuts 25% or more of his wheat for hay, even when grain prices are strong.
"That's because you can't beat it for getting new cattle straightened out," he says. "And our mares and colts always perform well when on wheat hay."
"It is mild on their digestive systems," adds Perkins. "It's great for backgrounding."
Its quality is often comparable to that of alfalfa.
"Our wheat hay normally yields 15-17% protein," says Allred, who began haying wheat during the mid-1980s government payment in kind (PIK) program. "We had more flexibility and found out how good of a forage wheat hay was."
In their wheat programs, Allred and Perkins plant in late summer and early fall, depending on the soil profile. Cattle are grazed on wheat until early March, at which time the decision is made whether to pull the cattle or graze out the wheat.
"If wheat prices are good, we're more apt to take the cattle off," says Allred. "If they're low, we'll either graze out cattle or hay it."
That, too, depends on cattle and hay prices. This year, the hay market didn't look promising in late spring. But after the Texas drought, Allred says his wheat hay was worth about $35 per 1,100-lb round bale, or close to $70/ton.
"I wish I'd put more of my wheat in hay," he says. "We sold some wheat at harvest for $2.67 per bushel. A month later, wheat prices had dropped to $2.50 or below."
With a hay yield of three to five bales per acre, it was worth $10/acre more than harvested grain. And Allred expected that price spread to widen with anticipated higher hay prices in wake of the continued dry Southwestern weather.
When should wheat be baled? Wheat hay requires more care than alfalfa. It must be thoroughly dried before baling, meaning it usually takes a week.
"We try to cut wheat for hay in mid-May at early boot stage," says Allred. "That's when it's at its highest quality. After it has dried about a week, it should be ready for baling. But you can't rush it.
"Some people think that, since alfalfa is ready for baling after three or four days, so is wheat. From what we've seen, baling too wet creates a better chance for spoilage. Bales will be hot. But if the wheat is allowed to dry sufficiently, it will be high quality and will store all winter."
Dave Hutcheson, a livestock nutritionist out of Amarillo, agrees that wheat hay's high protein makes it a quality forage. However, he warns, have it tested after a drought situation.
"There may be nitrates present that can be harmful to livestock," he says. "So make sure the wheat hay is safe for consumption."
Allred custom-bales Perkins' wheat hay, as well as alfalfa and other forages on his and other area farms.
In the dry High Plains climate, he must often bale at night.
"But it's worth it to harvest the high-quality forage, especially when wheat prices are low and a summer drought sets in," he says.