For those who haven’t traveled to Kansas and Oklahoma in the fall or spring, you probably don’t have an appreciation for the dominance of wheat as a forage crop in that part of the United States. Seeing cattle on wheat is about as common as seeing a cornfield in Iowa.
In the Lower Plains, there are two types of forage wheat: dual-purpose and graze-out. The latter is planted solely as a forage source for fall and spring grazing. Dual-purpose wheat is also grazed in the fall and spring, but cattle are removed earlier in the spring and the crop is allowed to mature for a grain harvest. This strategy encompasses a high level of management to minimize or eliminate grain yield losses.
In their weekly eUpdate newsletter, extension specialists at Kansas State University recently outlined the steps and considerations needed to successfully utilize and harvest dual-purpose wheat in the Lower Plains.
Dual-purpose wheat needs to be planted at least two to three weeks earlier than wheat seeded for grain only. This allows for good fall forage production where moisture levels are adequate. In north central Oklahoma, researchers documented that fall forage production declines by about 1,000 pounds per acre for each two-week delay in planting during September.
Seeding date is not the only thing that differs from grain wheat. Dual-purpose wheat must also be seeded at a rate of 1.5 to 2 times greater than its grain-only counterpart. The Kansas specialists note that the additional fall forage yield that comes when seeding rates are bumped from 90 to 120 pounds per acre more than pays for the added seed cost in regions where at least 30 inches of annual precipitation are received. This advantage is amplified with early seeding dates.
Seeding depth is also a consideration. Because dual-purpose wheat is planted earlier, soils are often drier. “Planting to moisture” is not always the best approach if it means planting deeper than 1-1/2 inches. The specialists note that warmer temperatures shorten the coleoptile length of the developing seedling; this makes emergence more of a risk at greater seeding depths. The better approach is to plant shallow and hope for rain.
Be vigilant when making your wheat variety selections for a dual-purpose role. Some varietal traits that are important for dual-purpose wheat are not generally considered for grain production. These traits include fall forage yield potential, date of first hollow stem, potential for recovery from grazing, resistance to viral diseases common under early planting, high-temperature germination sensitivity, coleoptile length, spring tiller production, and tolerance to low soil pH and aluminum toxicity. Consult university-generated wheat performance information to help make or confirm variety selections.
Dual-purpose wheat requires 60 to 90 additional pounds of nitrogen per acre compared to grain-only wheat. Extension specialists suggest that at least some or all of the needed nitrogen (for both forage and grain) can be applied in the fall, but a split application between fall and spring is more desirable, especially on sandy or clay-based soils.
Adequate soil phosphorus is also needed for improved tillering, winter survival, and early-season growth. Banding phosphorus fertilizer is the most efficient method of application, particularly on low soil pH soils where phosphorus availability is reduced. A recommended soil pH of 6.0 or higher is needed for optimum fall forage production.
Begin grazing dual-purpose wheat fields when the secondary root system has developed to the point where the plant is anchored; generally, this means about 6 to 8 inches of growth. Stocking rates vary from year to year, depending on the weather, but a good rule of thumb is 250 to 500 pounds of animal weight per acre (one to two stockers, depending on their weight).
In spring, stocking rates can be about doubled, but cattle need to be pulled off wheat pastures just as the first hollow stem develops. Past this point, grain yield declines by as much as 5 percent per day, depending on weather conditions.
Grazing winter wheat offers added value for those operations that also are in the grain business. To be lucrative, strict attention to planting, fertility, and grazing practices are needed. Now is the time to start mapping a game plan for success.