By Russ Quinn
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- The Southern Plains winter wheat crop is off to a good start thanks to plentiful moisture. That's a promising sign for those wanting to graze wheat this fall and winter.
The economics of grazing wheat looks to be positive as producers buy calves and prepare to turn then out to graze. Higher feeder calf prices in September have tightened the margins some, but profits remain.
While Mother Nature is cooperating right now, those in the region know that can change quickly. The weather during the winter months will be a major factor in how much winter wheat is used as forage.
RETURN OF RAINS
For now, the Southern Plains is flush with moisture, a statement that couldn't be said about the region very often in recent years.
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson said the moisture situation in the area is considerably different now compared to a few months ago. Back on July 1, most of the region was in severe to extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Now, almost the entire region is drought-free, Anderson said. There is still some dryness in the Texas Panhandle, but its severity is far less intense than back in midsummer.
"Most of the region has had from 8 to 20 or more inches over the past 90 days," Anderson said. "In fact, Dodge City (Kansas) has had 18.43 inches from July 1 to Oct. 11."
The Southern Plains winter wheat crop is more than half planted and beginning to emerge, according to the USDA Weekly Crop Progress report for the week of Oct. 7. Winter wheat planted was 58% in Kansas, 60% in Oklahoma and 54% in Texas. Winter wheat emerged was 33% in Kansas, 28% in Oklahoma and 20% for Texas.
The economics of grazing those winter wheat fields looks to be positive this fall, according to Darrell Peel, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension livestock marketing specialist. Budgets for this enterprise showed producers could be profitable if several factors fall into place.
"The old saying 'Make all the money on the buy, collect it when you sell' is still true in the stocker business," Peel told DTN.
Peel said producers need to be careful not to pay too much for 400-to-500-pound calves, otherwise they may cut into their profit margins. They need to run the numbers and know what their breakeven is before they go to the sale barn and buy calves, he said.
Using futures and other risk-management tools can help lessen the blow some, but once calves are bought, the die has been cast. Producers need to be willing "to take the trailer home empty" if calf prices are too high, Peel said.
Feeder calf prices did rise some in September in Oklahoma's sale barns once the rains began and it was apparent grazing wheat would be a go. These higher prices for feeder cattle tightened budgets some, he said.
Heath Sanders, OSU Extension Southwest area agronomist located in Duncan, said weather patterns shifted in early September. The region got some rains and the early-seeded wheat got up and growing quickly.
Quite a bit of rain has fallen since mid-September, which has kept some from finishing planting their wheat, he said. The southwestern area of the state has got anywhere from 8 to 11 inches of rain in the first week of October.
Another challenge Oklahoma wheat growers have faced this fall is a severe armyworm outbreak.
"There were thousands of acres sprayed around here, and some acres were sprayed twice," Sanders told DTN. "We even had some who quit planting wheat as they were worried about the crop being attacked."
However, the wetter and cooler conditions since mid-September have appeared to slow down feeding by the pest. When the area finally dries out, the remaining acres of wheat should be planted, Sanders said.
Sanders said most of the wheat planted in his area will most likely be grazed, depending on the weather conditions during the winter. Some will plan on using the crop for dual purposes (grazing and grain production), but other producers may graze it out completely. That happened last spring, as many were short of forages due to the dry conditions seen last winter, he said.
KANSAS GOOD TOO
Justin Waggoner, Kansas State University (KSU) extension beef systems specialist located at the Southwest Research and Extension Center in Garden City, said the winter wheat planted in southwestern Kansas this fall has been planted into moisture. This is something that doesn't always occur in the region, he said.
Those who do decide to graze their winter wheat acres are asked to keep a couple considerations in mind, he said. Producers should remember to match the number of cattle with the forage resources and monitor weather conditions.
"Stocking rates on grazing wheat can vary, but matching cattle to the available forage out in the field is important," Waggoner said.
Some producers will continuously graze a certain field, while others may rotate cattle through several different fields of wheat pasture, he said. Overgrazing winter wheat can lead to lower yields if the crop is going to produce grain.
Waggoner said the other consideration producers should remember when grazing wheat pasture is to keep a close eye on weather conditions during the grazing period.
Producers have to put gain on cattle, but weather can often have a large effect on the bottom line when grazing winter wheat, he said. Calves are fully exposed to the elements while grazing during the winter months and can easily get sick.
Winters in the Southern Plains can be cold, but snow cover is usually limited. If snowy weather does hit, producers might have to move portable windbreaks into the fields and perhaps even move cattle to dry-lot facilities to feed them, Waggoner said.
Russ Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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