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Wheatlage becoming popular in the Texas High Plains

Robert Fears for Progressive Forage Published on 01 December 2020

The Texas High Plains cover the Panhandle and consist of relatively flat land except for dissection by canyons of various depths and widths. There is a significant amount of native grass rangeland used by cattle and wildlife.

A large amount of warm-season crops such as corn, sorghum and cotton are also grown in the area. The important winter crop is wheat; however, fewer producers are growing the crop to grain harvest. Instead, they are taking advantage of the diverse forage options including grazing by primarily stocker cattle or harvesting as hay, greenchop or wheatlage for the numerous feedlots and dairy farms. In the Texas Panhandle, wheatlage is the term used to describe wheat silage.

wheat field

“Due to low grain prices, wheat forages have become popular because they are more profitable,” said Mike Bragg, AgriLife Extension agricultural and natural resources agent in Dallam and Hartley counties. “An advantage of wheatlage is that it allows more flexibility in harvest dates. Late springs, early frosts and snow or drought is common in this country, and the need to harvest wheat at different growth stages is always present. Wheatlage is harvested from freeze-damaged grain crops, drought-stressed grain crops or wheat planted for silage.”

“We graze winter wheat with stocker cattle until the first snow keeps us off of pastures for a month. If we can’t return within 30 days, we leave the cattle in the feedyard,” said Kevin Buse, owner and operator of Champion Feed Yard, Hereford, Texas. “After the snow melts and the wheat produces enough growth, we harvest it as wheatlage. If grazing isn’t interrupted by snow, we don’t need wheatlage.”

“An insufficient amount of summer silage is produced to meet regional livestock needs, especially feedlots and dairies. Wheatlage is lower-yielding than summer-produced silages, but it is a high-quality option,” said Jourdan Bell, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist, Amarillo.

Water conservation

The High Plains are a subregion of the Great Plains and occupy parts of eight states, including Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Underlying 80% of the High Plains is the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water to nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the U.S. The Ogallala Aquifer also serves as the main water supply for people throughout the High Plains.

Unfortunately, this million-year-old, 174,000-square-mile underground reservoir is being depleted at an unsustainable rate. Nearly 200,000 wells are withdrawing water from the Ogallala Aquifer. Estimated withdrawal rates are 10 to 50 times greater than recharge. In certain areas, the water table has dropped 100 to 200 feet. Through monitoring studies, it is estimated that the aquifer will run dry in 50 years unless water consumption is decreased. The Ogallala Aquifer is a crucial but finite resource in the Texas High Plains, where average annual precipitation ranges from 15 to 20 inches.

“A very important advantage of forages is: They use less water than grain crops because of earlier harvest. Under optimal conditions, total seasonal water use by small grains may reach 24 inches. This water is obtained through irrigation, precipitation and soil moisture,” said Bell. “Although increased yields have been achieved with newer varieties, crop water use requirements for grain have remained unchanged. Earlier forage harvest at soft dough stage may save about 4 inches of water, but harvesting at boot stage can save about 10 inches. Growers should consider irrigation capacity and predicted weather when determining wheat harvest stage and method.”

One of the most sensitive wheat growth stages to heat or moisture stress is later tillering when the number of kernels per head are determined. The other two sensitive stages are flowering and grain fill. Peak water use is from the boot stage through grain fill, which is approximately 12 inches in the Southern Great Plains. Harvesting at boot can preserve yield and quality and minimize irrigation expenses.

Time of harvest

“Yield, quality and dry matter content of wheatlage vary by year, field and growth stage,” Bell continued. “Forage moisture at ensiling is important because small grains have hollow stems which trap air. Anaerobic conditions are required for silage to ferment, and oxygen is removed from silage by packing. Entrapped air makes it harder to pack wheatlage to the required density than corn and sorghum silages. For storage as drive-over silage piles, growers should strive for 60 to 70 percent moisture and 30 to 40 percent dry matter.”

Moisture content of small grains harvested at boot stage is normally about 80%. Harvesting at this stage requires field wilting to a target of approximately 65% moisture. Length of the wilting period depends on environmental conditions and plant maturity stage. Wilting increases harvesting costs because it requires swathing, windrowing and possibly tedding the crop rather than one pass across the field with a silage cutter.

“Ideally, it is best to harvest at soft dough to maximize tonnage and price and to minimize equipment expenses. Although less than boot stage, there is quality in the soft dough stage and, in addition, the soft dough stage has ideal packing moisture,” Bell said.

Time of harvest will probably depend on whether you are a farmer, feeder or both and whether you desire the higher-quality silage harvested at boot stage at the expense of lower tonnage. Will the increased nutrient content value pay the wilting cost? If you are a grower, is the feeder willing to compensate you for reduced tonnage and increased harvesting cost?

Bell and Bragg initiated wheat variety trials in 2018 and 2019 at 3B Farms in Dallam County. The average yield for all varieties harvested at boot stage in 2019 was 3 tons per acre in comparison to an average of 7 tons per acre of the same varieties harvested at soft dough in the same field.

“If the producer is not compensated for a reduction in yield when harvesting at boot, there is a significant economic loss,” said Bell. “Knowledge of the yield loss may help the grower and feeder negotiate a fair price.”

In conclusion, Bell recommended carefully selecting the variety of wheat to plant. Yields can vary among varieties as much as 50%. end mark

PHOTO: An advantage of wheatlage is that it allows more flexibility in harvest dates. Photo by Robert Fears.

Robert Fears is a freelance writer based in Georgetown, Texas.