Winter weather and wheat grazing in the southern Plains
The winter wheat grazing situation has been difficult to assess this year. There has been considerable interest in wheat grazing and a general feeling that there would be more stocker cattle grazing wheat than in the past couple of years. However, wheat planting was spread out over a long period last fall and cattle purchases were likewise slower paced and more dispersed.
I have driven across a wide swath of the southern Plains recently and what I observed, combined with other indications, suggests the following assessment of conditions at this time. First, there do seem to be more stocker cattle on wheat this year. This is supported by the latest USDA estimate that 38 percent of Oklahoma wheat is being grazed compared to 27 percent last year and a five-year average of 31 percent. We will get a better estimate in the annual cattle inventory report at the end of January.
Second, many of the cattle appear to be fairly small. Many wheat pastures were stocked relatively late with lightweight cattle. The recent blizzard and cold weather has no doubt slowed animal performance as well. Some producers were probably already thinking about grazing out wheat and current weakness in wheat prices may make wheat grazeout even more attractive in the coming weeks. I don’t expect a large number of cattle to be bought specifically for wheat grazeout, but it appears that many of the cattle grazing this winter would be available for grazeout if the owners so choose. Feeder cattle price relationships generally favor putting some additional pounds on animals with values of gain that are the highest for taking animals from roughly 650 to 850 pounds. Additionally, a producer looking at May Feeder Futures has seen a $5/cwt. rally since the lows a month ago and a better opportunity to lock in an acceptable price for cattle coming off grazeout wheat in May.
Finally, my windshield survey of wheat pasture conditions would suggest that many of cattle currently grazing are on very limited forage. The recent prolonged cold weather stopped wheat growth and burned back the wheat forage with the result that many of the heavily stocked wheat pastures are rapidly depleting forage supplies. Although warmer weather this week will allow limited wheat growth to restart, many pastures will likely be unable to get ahead of grazing demand for the next six weeks or so. Producers have faced lots of management challenges recently, busting ice and so on. The challenges will continue, and some producers will face increased supplemental feed needs or the prospect of partial destocking before forage growth accelerates in March.
At this time, the market situation looks fairly promising for feeder cattle prices for both winter grazing and grazeout. However, the management challenges that began last fall with difficulties in establishing wheat pasture and initiating grazing will likely continue with limited winter forage and more decisions about supplementation and the possibility of grazeout. — Derrell S. Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension Livestock Marketing Specialist