Wheat fields significantly damaged by freezing could be baled for hay or chopped for silage for the stocker-cattle and beef-cow markets, suggest Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialists.

But growers should figure out how much forage is in the field and compare the costs of harvesting for grain to harvesting for hay. So says Larry Redmon, AgriLife Extension state forage specialist in College Station.

“When it turns dry, people get desperate, and that hay can be worth quite a bit,” Redmon says. In droughty conditions in 2011, for example, “the last round bales of hay into Abilene were priced at $180 a bale. If the bales weighed 1,000 lbs, that’s $360 a ton.” Use current market prices to figure the crop’s potential as hay, he says.

“For many fields, we know now or will soon know that they may not be worth carrying to grain,” adds Calvin Trostle, AgriLife Extension agronomist in Lubbock. “And how much grain is ‘worth it’ if we have to keep irrigating: 15 or 20 or 25 or 30 bu/acre?”

He doesn’t have a simple way to gauge approximate tonnage of a wheat field or other small-grain forage field. “You eye it and estimate, though it is an educated estimate.”

If in a pasture, the forage would be cut, dried and weighed in a 12” quadrant to extrapolate pounds per acre, Redmon says. But the estimate of a drilled crop would need to be tweaked for row spacing because it is generally grown on 7-8” rows.

Then the possible hay tonnage from an acre is compared to the possible wheat grain yield. Except for wheat in the northern Panhandle, grazing the freeze-damaged wheat – most likely a bearded variety –isn’t a likely option. The awns in bearded heads greatly reduce the forage palatability.

Redmon estimates a 1-ton/acre hay yield worth $125-180/ton – “depending on how the rest of the year goes,” vs. a 10-bu/acre wheat harvest at $7/bu. “So the hay harvest looks good.”

But also consider hay prices, who will pay for haying, and what silage prices will be. If silage prices include a percent crude protein criterion, the price may be discounted heavily if percent crude protein is not met, he warns.

Also consider the amount of nutrients moved off the field in the forage, Trostle suggests. Replacing the nitrogen and other nutrients taken out with a ton of dry wheat hay could cost $30-50/ton depending on the wheat growth stage.

“Right now haying yield-damaged wheat appears to be the best option,” adds Steve Amosson, AgriLife Extension economist in Amarillo. Prices are running from $145 to $175/ ton.

“New-crop wheat offers are about $7.15/bu, which is historically a good price, but by the time you adjust for harvest expenses for both hay and grain options, it appears that you will have to harvest approximately 20 bu of wheat to get the equivalent net returns from harvesting a ton of wheat hay,” Amosson says.

“In addition, you have the added risk of hail damage from waiting to harvest it for grain that you wouldn’t have from baling it now. Of course, every situation is different, so producers need to use a sharp pencil in determining which option works best for them.”

If the wheat is irrigated, “then you are still irrigating potentially a few inches, so continuing to grain doesn’t stop the expenses on the crop the way haying would,” Trostle says.

The more mature wheat that’s started heading out may not be as high quality as the younger wheat, Redmon says, but it will still make hay that can be more valuable this year than others due to the continuing drought.

“Once it starts to flower, wheat moves the nutrients from the leaves to the grain and out of the leaves.” Where grain is developing, crude protein in hay would be around 8-10%. That not headed out would be around 12-14%

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Making hay now might offer insurance against potential drought, Redmon says. “Our warm-season grasses are two to three weeks behind. So the hay situation now doesn’t look good, but if we get rain, it will improve. East Texas and Northeast Texas are considered abnormally dry now and that’s where they could cut some good hay. Central Texas is dry; we are under extreme drought. The Coastal Bend region, where they cut a lot of hay, is in severe to extreme drought.

“Right now there is not a whole lot of hay to be cut, although there will be some cut,” Redmon says. “If they can make hay, they better make some, because it may be the only cutting they get unless conditions change.”

As of last week, 92% of the state was under drought, he says. The forecast shows that Northeast Texas is supposed to improve, but in the western three-quarters of the state, the drought is supposed to intensify.

For more information on assessing wheat freeze injury as well as continuing crop updates, visit wheatfreezeinjury.tamu.edu.

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