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Dual-purpose wheat requires integrated management

Landowners and cattle operators who use wheat as a dual-purpose grain and grazing crop can improve their efficiency and profitability through integrated management, according to a Texas A&M range animal nutritionist. Integrated management means managing all resources within a production system in concert with one another, rather than as separate entities, said Bill Pinchak, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station range animal nutritionist headquartered at Vernon.

Pinchak presented an overview of management strategies for dual-purpose wheat production at a recent Stocker Cattle Conference in Wichita Falls. The one-day conference focused on forages, cattle health, risk management and marketing, weather, and beef quality assurance.

More than 100 landowners, wheat producers and cattle operators attended the event, which was co-sponsored by Texas Cooperative Extension, the Experiment Station, Extension offices on the Rolling Plains, and several agribusinesses.

“To make integrated management work, we must know all of our production costs and commodity values for all phases of a dual-purpose wheat system, and then manage the system according to economics, rather than according to tradition,” Pinchak said. “Our ultimate goal is sustainable profitability.”

Grazing stocker cattle on forages such as winter wheat is a major enterprise on the Rolling Plains. In any given year, there are about 1.5 billion head of stocker cattle turned out on wheat, native and improved pastures in the 25 counties that comprise the Rolling Plains.

In 2000, this value-added enterprise contributed about $150 million to the region's economy. “In this area, dual-purpose wheat systems are typically low-input systems,” Pinchak explained. “We try to spend as little as possible getting a wheat crop up, so we can provide fall and spring forage (grazing) for beef calves. Some operators pull their calves off the forage in spring and let their wheat produce a marketable grain crop, while others find it more profitable to simply graze the wheat out.

“The ideal dual-purpose wheat production system includes earlier planting to produce more vegetative forage growth; grazing that forage to produce as many pounds of beef as possible; and then harvesting a marketable grain crop a few months after grazing ends.”

Producers who closely manage soil fertility; variety selection; seeding rates and times; stocking rates; and cattle nutrition are most likely to return a profit from dual-purpose wheat, he said. “Dual-purpose wheat requires more nutrients to maximize its grazing and grain potential.

“Texas research has shown that deep-placed nitrogen and phosphorus produces more forage and higher grain yields than surface or broadcast applications of these nutrients. We also see higher net returns in this scenario, compared to grazing or grain production systems alone.”

It is best to select wheat varieties with balanced forage and grain potential, because the decision to manage for dual-purpose production often isn't made until after the crop is planted, he added.

Seeding rates and dates also affect the bottom-line profit potential of dual-purpose wheat.

“Increasing seeding rates from 30 pounds per acre, up to 60, 90 or even 180 pounds per acre will increase forage production, as long as the crop is planted before mid-September. Later planting dates will produce less forage and less grain yield potential,” Pinchak said.

“Once we get a crop up, we have to manage animal gains and forage growth by adjusting stocking rates. How many calves will our wheat support before gains or grain potential decline?”

Recommended fall and winter stocking rates range from 250 to 500 pounds of animal per acre, while spring stocking rates are usually one to two times greater than fall rates, due to increased forage production. Optimum stocking rates for dual-purpose wheat typically ranges from 1.7 to two acres per head, he noted.

Research at Texas A&M's Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Vernon indicates that overstocking can reduce grain yield potential and have more impact on final net returns than increased beef yield when cattle are “taken in on the gain.

“When we terminate grazing also affects final grain yield and net returns. Research indicates we should terminate grazing when our wheat produces its first hollow stem. Grazing beyond the first hollow stem growth stage can reduce grain yield potential by as much as 1.25 bushels per day. Final net returns from a dual-purpose crop also decline if we continue grazing past the first hollow stem growth stage.”

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