Due to late planting, seed shortages and high wheat prices, wheat pasture is in short supply this year, and grazing periods are likely to be shorter then normal, says Noble Foundation livestock specialist Evan Whitley, PhD.

Also, dry weather hit much of the wheat-growing region right at planting time, forcing some growers to re-plant fields. Seed shortages compounded the problem, resulting in smaller acreage.

In its Oct. 16 Wheat Outlook report, USDA projects that 2007/2008 ending stocks of wheat will be the lowest since 1949. The report projects a season-average farm price of $5.80 to $6.40 per bushel, well above the record of $4.55 per bushel for 1995/1996. Looking at those prices, most growers will make grain yields their top priority. If they plan to run cattle on their fields, they want to give the crop a chance to establish first. And come spring, they’ll want cattle off the crop early. 

As a result, stocker operators are holding cattle on dry lots or delaying their purchases, planning to place heavier cattle on wheat later than usual. Producers in the Southern Plains region typically turn cattle out on wheat pastures by Nov. 1, but Whitley expects most to wait several weeks later this year.

Fewer acres, delayed turnout and a shorter grazing season mean less wheat forage available for stocker production. But at the same time, the value of gain for stocker cattle has increased, and Whitley believes energy supplements will improve returns in most situations.

On moderately stocked wheat pasture, say around 1,000 pounds of cattle per acre, Whitley says producers should evaluate the value of incremental increases in gains from energy supplements. This is a likely strategy for larger pastures where grain production is a priority — using supplements to improve individual gains without increasing stocking rates.

Another strategy is to use supplemental feeding along with higher stocking rates to boost total gain per acre, rather than per animal. Whitley says a well-planned and managed feeding program could allow stocking rates of 1,500 pounds per acre or higher, with the additional beef production helping account for likely reductions in grain yield. This could be a profitable strategy this year, particularly on smaller acreage.