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Grazing cattle on wheat could be net profit despite crop loss

Kentucky Correspondent

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The drought of 2012 will not soon be forgotten, as many states are still going through it. Kentucky has been fortunate enough to receive plentiful precipitation during the past few months.

That doesn’t mean problems don’t remain. Last summer’s record heat and dry conditions left many farmers without ample hay supplies for the winter. According to the USDA Annual Crop Production Summary for 2012, the total U.S. hay production stood at 120 million tons, off the five-year average by 18 percent and the lowest since at least 1974.

In Kentucky, alfalfa hay production was estimated at 522,000 tons, down 27 percent from the previous year, while other hay production was estimated at 4.4 million tons, or 5 percent below the 2011 level, according to information from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Kentucky field office.

This tighter supply could mean increased cost for livestock producers, but the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture is conducting research to help cattle farmers graze their animals longer during the winter months.

The project looks at the pros and cons of grazing wheat that will later be harvested for grain. The practice isn’t new in other parts of the country and Roy Burris, UK extension beef specialist, believes it can be replicated here.

“In the cattle business, we say any day grazing is a good day, and beef cattle wintering costs are so high,” he said. “If cattle can graze the wheat, it will be good for the cattle and good for producers’ pocketbooks.”

Burris asked UK soil extension specialist Edwin Ritchey to help with the project. The two conducted a trial during last year’s winter wheat season and are doing the same again this year.

According to information from UK, cattle were grazed from Dec. 12-March 16 on 19 acres of wheat next to a two-acre, tall fescue field. The cattle were moved from the wheat to the adjacent pasture on the weekends and during wet periods to prevent compaction and yield damage.

The research found 24 young beef heifers gained nearly a pound a day using this method. By using current cattle prices, a monetary gain of $140 per acre would have been realized.

The research also showed a decrease in yield of seven bushels per acre with an estimated loss per acre of $50, thus producing a net gain of $90 per acre. The research project noted that no hay was fed to the animals.

“We weren’t trying to maximize weight gain, just get the cattle to gain enough weight so they would breed efficiently,” Burris said. “Cost of gain should be less on pasture compared to dry lot feeding.”

The project also involved planting double-crop soybeans after the wheat harvest to see if yields would be affected. There was little change in soybean yields, which meant field compaction caused by the cattle was likely kept to a minimum.

“We feel like this is a very good option for small- to medium-sized grain producers that are also running cattle,” Ritchey said. “It probably won’t work for the larger grain farmers who have already pushed all their fences out to maximize production.”

He added, ideally, the wheat should be 6-8 inches tall before cattle are placed in the field.

“You also have to make sure they don’t graze it into the ground. In Kentucky, we tend to have wet winters, and you don’t want the animals to compact the soil. Therefore, you need another pasture where the cattle can still graze when the weather is wet and sloppy,” Ritchey said.

Research during the current wheat season has half the herd graze wheat throughout the season while the other half will be removed prior to the wheat jointing to measure just how much damage to yields the cattle will do.