Wheat Production Challenges

This year has posed some significant challenges for wheat producers in South Dakota. In some areas the wheat is not making grain due to various issues including drought and diseases, such as rust. In addition to production being compromised, wheat prices have been steadily declining. The decline in the wheat market is a combination of multiple things, with the most significant being large world-wide wheat supply along with an abundant last year’s crop supply in the U. S.

These challenges with the wheat crop, have made some farmers opt to harvest the wheat for hay instead of grain in hopes of being able to gather more value from the crop. The timing of haying however is critical to the feed value of the wheat hay. There is research evidence that shows that as wheat matures, the forage quality decreases very rapidly. This research indicates that the decrease in quality becomes most rapid once the head first develops. Once this occurs the plant moves nutrients from the forage to make grain. As the nutrients are moved, the protein content of the forage decreases very rapidly. The other physiological change that occurs with wheat at this time is that the forage begins increasing in lignin, which provides strength to the plant to support the seed head; however the lignin is completely indigestible.

Wheat Hay Testing & Rationing

In addition to the maturity of wheat hay, it is also critical to understand the nitrate risk. If you were planning on a very good wheat crop and fertilized it accordingly, but it didn’t make grain, there is a good chance that it could be high in nitrates. As plants take nitrogen out of the soil, it goes through multiple processes in the plant prior to making grain. If this process is slowed or stopped (e.g. by drought), the nitrogen gets held in a state that is not safe for livestock (nitrate), especially pregnant females. Make sure to have all small grain hays tested for nitrates prior to feeding to livestock. Check with your local Regional Extension Center about the availability of the Nitrate Quick Test for Forages. For specific information on nitrates and the risk to livestock see the publication: Nitrate Poisoning Causes and Prevention.

Beyond nitrate testing, all wheat hay needs to be sampled with a bale core sampler and sent to a commercial laboratory for analysis. Once you receive the analysis results, you will need to determine how it can be incorporated into a ration because the feed value will likely be lower than anticipated.

Determining Feed Value

Once you have determined the feed value of the wheat hay, it is vitally important to determine the value of the feed and how much you can afford to pay for it. The best way to do this is to compare it on a cost per unit of nutrient basis. Typically, wheat hay will be used as a primary energy source. Therefore, when comparing price, you will need to determine the cost per ton of TDN of hay that can be purchased and then determine the price that can be paid for the potentially lower quality wheat hay. An additional challenge is that the alfalfa/grass hay will provide sufficient protein, but the wheat hay will probably be deficient in protein, therefore a cost comparison on a CP basis is also necessary.

For example:

Good quality alfalfa/grass hay is available for $150/ton and is 90% DM, 15% CP, and 56% TDN.

  • $150 ÷ 90% DM ÷ 56% TDN = $298/ton of TDN on a DM basis
  • $150 ÷ 90% DM ÷ 15% CP = $1,111/ton of CP on a DM basis

If wheat hay tests 90% DM, 5% CP and 48% TDN, we can afford to pay $129/ton for the wheat hay to provide the equivalent amount of energy as the alfalfa/grass hay.

  • $298 * 90% DM * 48% TDN = $129/ton in the field for equivalent to alfalfa/grass
  • $1,111 * 90% DM * 5% CP = $50/ton in the field for equivalent to alfalfa/grass

However, the cattle will not be able to consume enough of the wheat hay to meet protein requirements and a protein supplement will be necessary. For example, a 1300 lb. cow will be able to consume approximately 22 lbs of wheat hay (1.5% body weight on a dry matter basis) that would provide 0.87 lb. CP but she will need approximately 1.95 lb. CP to meet her needs in mid-gestation. Therefore, the cattle will need 4 lb. dried distiller’s grains per head per day to meet protein requirements and the added cost of the DDGS needs to be considered in determining how much can be paid for the wheat hay. This value for this example will be around $124/ton. The value was calculated by determining the cost per head per day to feed the alfalfa/grass hay and then subtracted the cost of the DDGS to determine what was available to pay for the wheat hay. This price does not account for added labor and fuel for delivering DDGS, therefore a lower price may be necessary.

Source: Adele Harty and Ken Olson, SDSU Extension