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Wheat Hay: Cattle Love It

Wheat hay, if harvested right, can fit the bill as a palatable beef cattle feed, just like it does for stockers and other cattle in winter grazing programs.

With mid-summer dry weather, there's always the possibility of parched pastures. It's important to cover that risk with the availability of quality, palatable hay at a good price.

Wheat hay, if harvested right, can fit the bill, just like it does for stockers and other cattle in winter grazing programs.

“The cattle love it. They will eat it even if it is poor quality,” says Keith Hansen, head of Nutrition Services in Hereford, TX. Hansen, whose company services some 140 feedyards with a 2-million-plus capacity, sees wheat hay as a quality forage for all cattle. The highest quality hay can have an 18% protein count, is very palatable, with a sweet taste that cattle like.

Matt Gard, a Fairview, OK, farmer/custom hayman, doesn't run cattle. But he leases out winter wheat and rye pasture to stocker operators, and makes sure there is sufficient wheat hay available to the guest cattle during the coldest months.

“It feeds really good,” he says, noting that yield for wheat hay's single cutting can be up to five round bales, or four tons/acre. “Its soft stem is really good for young calves,” he says.

Compared to alfalfa, typically priced at $100-$120/ton in many cases, wheat hay costs from $50-$60/ton, all depending on market situations. For the lower price, producers can receive a good forage that can provide vital nutrients.

A Tight Window

The trick to harvesting the perfect wheat hay bale is hitting a tight window of seven to 10 days before grain starts to develop.

“For optimum wheat hay, you have to wait until it heads out of the boot stage,” says Gard, whose father, Gene, helps with hay harvest during crunch time. “But it must be cut before the dough stage. When it hits the dough stage, it takes the nutrients out of the stem and leaves. They go directly to grain fill. The nutritional value goes downhill in a hurry.”

Adds Hansen, “If cattlemen are buying wheat hay, it may be wise to determine when it was harvested. For best quality, make sure it was hayed no later than the flag leaf.”

Of course, when wheat prices are high, like the $3.50-$4/bu. range seen this spring and summer, more wheat is harvested for grain, whether cattle were grazed on it or not. But, then there are cases in which Mother Nature can dictate haying decisions.

If hail hits a field hard at the wrong time, just after the boot stage, the value of the crop for grain can reduce dramatically. For example, some growers expecting 80-100 bu. of wheat/acre in the northwest Texas Panhandle near Perryton received heavy hail that either completely damaged the crop or knocked down its yield potential by 50% or more.

Mike Garnett produces and custom harvests wheat hay and other small grain forages, along with alfalfa and a variety of grazer-type hays. He baled several fields for customers whose wheat was either hailed out for grain, or who put up wheat hay for their cattle.

Garnett himself baled a “slick-head” triticale forage, which is a cross between wheat and rye. Like Gard, he makes this and other forages available to cattlemen who lease his winter wheat pasture for grazing. “The triticale can get chin high, but you can still hay it because it has a sweet stem and cattle like it a lot,” Garnett says.

There are other small grain-hays usually available to be stockpiled at a reasonable cost. Along with wheat and triticale, oat hay can be very palatable at all stages of maturity.

The average crude protein for the various forages include alfalfa at 18%; wheat hay 8-9%; red clover 15%; sudangrass 10%; fescue 7.5%; milo stubble 6%; prairie hay 5.8%; and corn stover 5.2%.

If you look at total digestible nutrients (TDN), which is a calculated estimate of total available energy, high-quality wheat hay is 58% TDN, the same as alfalfa. Sudangrass is 56%, fescue 53%, prairie 51%, baled milo stubble 49%, and baled corn stover 49%.

Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, TX.


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