Pasture and Forage Minute: Wheat Grazing vs. Grain Value, Choosing Summer Forage
Wheat Grazing vs. Grain Value
Cereal grains like wheat are grown for dual purpose (forage and grain) production in the Central Plains and Southern Plains states. To prevent grazing animals from eating immature wheat heads, livestock are generally removed from the fields just prior to the jointing growth stage when immature wheat heads move up the stems.
This year, economic conditions and the marginal wheat yield outlook have many Nebraska growers placing higher value on wheat as a forage. Extended spring dry conditions held back pasture growth and delayed livestock turn out onto native pastures. Also, higher hay prices (still over $200 per ton for prairie hay and baled alfalfa) are favoring wheat forage utilization. For example, the wheat or rye graze-out option may provide 45 days or more of grazing.
So, instead of protecting potential grain yields, producers may be removing wheat as a forage and re-planting summer annuals like grain sorghum, millet or forage sorghums on those same fields. Whether the cereal plant forages are grazed out, hayed or harvested as wheatlage, the goal is to timely plant subsequent summer annuals between mid-May to mid-June for optimizing yields. Sorghum planting windows may extend to later June or possible early July depending on moisture conditions. Later grain sorghum planting dates, though — such as after wheat grain harvest — usually result in yields half as productive compared to earlier sorghum planting.
In western Nebraska, average stocker cattle gains on wheat during May and early June have ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per head per day.
Selecting Summer Annual Forages
It is close to the ideal time to plant a summer annual grass, maybe to replenish your hay supply or have some extra grazing. Which one will you plant?
Choosing a summer forage can be confusing because there are about seven different types of major summer annual forage grasses. These include: sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, forage sorghum (which we often call cane or sorgo), foxtail millet, pearl millet, Japanese millet and teff. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. So, base your choice primarily on how you plan to use it.
For example, do you want pasture? Then use sudangrass or pearl millet. Both are leafy, regrow rapidly and contain less danger from prussic acid poisoning than other annual grasses.
What if you want hay or green chop? Then select sorghum-sudan hybrids or pearl millet, because they yield well and they have good feed value when cut two or three times. On sandy soils, or when conditions are dry, foxtail millet may be a better choice for summer hay. It dries fast, doesn't regrow after cutting and handles dry soils well. Cane hay is grown in many areas and produces high tonnage, but it’s lower in feed value and dries more slowly after cutting than the hybrids or millets. Japanese millet can either be cut for hay or grazed and is a plant that can tolerate heavy, wet soils. Choose teff if you are looking for a really soft, leafy, high quality horse hay.
Maybe you plan to chop silage. Then choose the forage sorghums, especially hybrids with high grain production. They can't be beat for tonnage or for feed value.
While there are several choices of summer annual forages, simply select the one that is best adapted to the way you plan to use it. And, of course, hope for rain, since even these grasses won’t grow without some moisture.
Controlling Poison Hemlock
Poison hemlock and its cousin, water hemlock, are on the list of top 10 poisonous Nebraska plants. A species that has really seemed to take over in wet or moist soils across the eastern portion of the state, hemlock can cause serious issues if ingested, by either livestock or humans.
A biannual, hemlock spends its first year as a rosette with fern-like leaves. A smooth, purple spotted reproductive stalk that can reach heights of 10 feet, topped with small white flowers, emerges in year two. Smell is another distinguishing characteristic, with hemlock having a smell best described as heavy or musty.
Hemlock plants produce alkaloid toxins in all parts of the plant. These chemicals are extremely potent. As little as five pounds of consumed foliage can be a lethal dose for cattle. The hollow stem on mature plants may seem like an attractive straw or pea shooter for small children, with detrimental consequences.
Luckily, from an animal perspective, hemlock is not an attractive grazing option. In a pasture with plenty of other grazing options, animals will typically leave hemlock alone. However, when forage options are limited, even unpalatable plants may become an option for hungry animals.
The good news is that hemlock can be controlled with mowing or herbicide applications. Regular mowing to prevent flower stalks from forming and producing seed can be an effective mechanical control technique, but need to occur regularly and will take several years to achieve control. In the spring, a 2,4-D Plus Dicamba mix can effectively treat and control hemlock.
For both mowing and herbicide treatment, do not try to control hemlock during the grazing season. Let me repeat that again — do not try to control hemlock during the grazing season! Following treatment, make sure livestock stay out of the treated area as the poisonous alkaloids can still be present in dead leaf tissue. Additionally, mowing and herbicide alter the plant increasing its palatability, even in dead and dying plant tissues.