Winter wheat pasture grazing conditions across the region are an important factor influencing the fall calf market, but for now the outlook remains a bit mixed.

Steve Schneider, who owns Syracuse Commission Company in Kansas, as well livestock auctions in Burlington, Colo., and Imperial, Neb., confirmed that wheat pasture grazing interest has expanded across Western Kansas in recent years.

"In this area, we are seeing more people wanting to do it now than a few years back," he said. "But right now the wheat pasture thing is not looking as good as it has in recent years."

"We had good rain in August," he added. "But September didn't do us any good around here."

While things could improve, and there's still time to plant wheat, forage production becomes more limited with later planting.

The outlook appears more promising across Northwest Oklahoma.

Historically half of the area's wheat acreage is used for grain-only production, while the rest is utilized in some type of grazing or forage program, according to Josh Bushong, northwest area agronomist for Oklahoma State University. 

"It looks like we're going back to heavier grazing interest for the 2020 crop," he observed. "A lot of wheat was planted early this year, probably more than average."

Northwest area extension economist Trent Milacek, who is based out of the same office in Enid, said all of the signals are pointing toward more grazing activity than the area has seen in the last several years.

"The value of gain in current markets is $1 to $1.25, which is really good, and it's only costing you 30 to 35 cents to produce the forage for that gain, so there's some margin there, and I think that's creating lots of interest in running cattle this year," Milacek said.

Another factor is that the wheat price this fall is 30 percent lower than it was a year ago, motivating producers to look at other options besides grain.

"We've also had good moisture and not as many armyworms as we've seen in the past," he added. "The last several years we had a big struggle just getting stands established, but they're not as prevalent this year, so we have some big wheat out there already."

Winter wheat makes excellent quality forage that is ideal for putting weight on cattle, and Oklahoma State University has spent decades developing varieties that fit a graze-and-grain dual-purpose system.

In September, OSU introduced OK Corral, a new beardless variety that gives producers added flexibility.

Test weights on grain from awn-free varieties tend to be a couple of pounds lighter than traditional bearded varieties, according to OSU chief wheat breeder Bret Carver. But in the case of OK Corral, the flour yield, extraction rate, water absorption and dough strength are comparable to high quality milling varieties. The variety also comes with a strong disease resistance package.

"Overall it's the most attractive beardless variety in the hard red winter wheat marketplace today," Carver said.

Beardless varieties offer an advantage to producers who could end up grazing out or haying wheat late in the growing season.

The extension specialists in Enid noted that the make-up of area farms has changed over the past decade, when $7 corn lifted grain prices across the board and spurred many farmers to forego the labor, financial risk and expense involved in running stocker cattle over the winter.

With grain prices now back to historic lows, producers are being a little more creative about how they bring livestock and forage production back into their operations, the specialists said.

Bushong noted that overall wheat acreage has continued to drift lower as crop rotations become more diverse and summer crops more popular.

But wheat is still an important crop in the region, and Milacek added that one of the changes they are seeing is more farmers looking at utilizing wheat forage for cows.

"Stocker calves are higher priced and involve more risk than some people want to take on," Milacek said. "So we are seeing some of them transition to more of a cow-calf set-up rather than jumping back into stockers again."

Wheat pasture is nutrient rich and relatively high priced compared to other options, so it's not as simple as swapping one for the other, he added.

"It's a little more complicated than that," he said. "This is the same forage that will put three pounds of gain on a stocker calf, so with a cow you have to be real careful about what your goals are."

Cows on wheat tend to get fat, which can lead to calving difficulties, whereas a body condition score of 6 is the ideal target for a brood cow, Milacek said.

Running cows on winter wheat will typically increase body condition by two or three scores, he said, which might work for someone who has cull cows in poor condition and wants to feed them over the winter before selling them into what is typically a higher seasonal market in the spring.

Otherwise, it's best to limit their access to grazing, he said.

Dave Lalman, a well-known beef cattle specialist at OSU, recently conducted a four-year research trial to determine how cow-calf producers can make optimal use of wheat pasture.

He took a set of fall calving cows and supplemented them with wheat pasture from the second week of December through the middle of April, at which time the calves were weaned and the cows were moved to native pasture. Sometime between mid-June and early July they were moved back onto the wheat ground to graze a summer cover crop, which consisted of a sorghum-sudangrass mix the first year and Red River crabgrass the following three years.

The summer cover crop was grazed for about 30 to 40 days before cows were moved back onto native grass for fall calving.

"We discovered the sweet spot (for wheat supplementation) was three hours three days a week," Lalman said. "That was enough high quality forage to supplement low quality prairie hay in the dry-lot, while the calves had unlimited access to creep grazing."

Not only did the cows perform well, the calves also weighed a hundred pounds more at weaning compared to a control group kept strictly on native range.

Another advantage of the system was that it cut the need for native pasture in half. The control group required about 12 acres of native grass per cow, while the wheat-supplemented cows only needed six.

The wheat was stocked at a rate of seven-tenths of an acre per cow-calf pair.

While it is ideal to have native pasture adjacent to the wheat, another option is to fence off a corner of the field where water and hay can be provided, assuming the drainage is good, he added.

"It's not for everybody, but if you have the right resources its something to think about," he said.