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Agronomist discusses factors to consider when planning dual-purpose wheat crop

Growing wheat as a forage crop and as a grain crop is a way for producers to boost the income from their wheat operation. But, there are factors to consider when using wheat as a dual-purpose crop, according to Kansas State University agronomist Jim Shroyer.

"Moisture is always a consideration at planting time, but this year we´ve had good moisture across most of the state except the southwest," said Shroyer, assessing the outlook for planting a crop that will support both forage and grain production. "In fact, in some areas it´s been a little too wet - a somewhat unusual occurrence for late summer in Kansas."

Shroyer, who is a crop production specialist with K-State Research and Extension, said that producers who are planning to graze wheat this fall and the harvest grain next summer should plant 10 to 14 days earlier than they would if striving for grain production only.

One problem a grower can encounter with planting early is that the soil is too warm, which can keep the coleoptile from extending, the agronomist said. That´s usually not a problem in Kansas, however, and it certainly isn´t this year.

"You need a good root system before turning cattle out on wheat. So, you´ll want at least four to six weeks of growth and maybe more, depending on soil moisture and other factors," he said. "The root system is key, so the cattle can´t pull the plants out. The plants should be at least 6 to 8 inches tall with tillers."

Earlier planting does increase the need for vigilant scouting, however, Shroyer said. Early-planted wheat can act as a host for greenbugs, bird cherry-oat aphids, Hessian flies and wheat streak mosaic until later fields are planted.

"You also should increase seeding rates by about 50 percent because you´ll lose some plants to grazing," he said. "For example, if you normally seed at a rate of 60 to 75 pounds per acre, you should bump it up to 90 to 120 pounds per acre."

In terms of nutrients, Shroyer said, a grower who typically applies 1.5 to 2 pounds of nitrogen (soil nitrogen, plus applied N) for a grain-only crop would need to increase that nitrogen for dual-purpose wheat by 0.4 pound per acre for every pound of cattle gain to be taken off. For example 100 pounds of beef gain would require an extra 40 pounds of N.

"If you are shooting for a dual-purpose crop and you only put on nitrogen for the grain, there won´t be enough nitrogen left, come grain-filling time," he said. "The cattle will have removed it in the forage.

"When (grazing out) is the best option in some years, depending on the price of wheat and the price of cattle, you´d better be fertilizing for both forage and grain, to get the biggest bang out of your forage buck."

The agronomist also suggested that if a soil test bears out the need, producers should put down "a starter for good phosphorus support -- recognizing that prices are high this year."

Shroyer cautioned, however, against grazing cattle too long on wheat that is also to produce a grain crop.

"Usually fall grazing has little effect on grain yields at the end," he said. "But, eight or nine times out of 10, if you graze in the spring, you´ll have some yield reduction ... unless there´s a late freeze, in which case the grazed wheat may do better because it´s developmentally behind.

"The danger in grazing too hard or too long is that you´ll reduce the leaf area and remove the growing point, which will reduce yields."

Shroyer said that in studies conducted by both K-State and Oklahoma State University, the variety of wheat planted played less of a role in a successful dual-purpose wheat crop than did the variability of weather from one year to the next.

"There is more variation from year to year than from variety to variety," he said.

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