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Researchers look at unique aspects of grazing wheat pasture

The Oklahoma State University Marshall Wheat Pasture Research Unit hosts projects that help cattlemen and wheat farmers gain profits

By Jennifer M. Latzke


Gerald Horn, professor in the Department of Animal Science, Oklahoma State University, shows one of the many grazing research projects conducted at the OSU Marshall Wheat Pasture Research Unit, Marshall, Okla. (Photo courtesy Todd Johnson, Oklahoma State Ag Communications Services.)

A metal sign reading “Wheat Pasture Research” sits atop the entrance to the Marshall Wheat Pasture Research Unit just outside of Marshall, Okla. Beyond this simple gate, for 25 years, Oklahoma State University faculty have cooperated across departments at this one-of-a-kind facility. They work together to conduct research benefitting the Oklahoma wheat pasture stocker cattleman and wheat producer. With about 22.5 million acres of wheat planted in the Southern Great Plains, the research they conduct has far-reaching benefits.

In the beginning, Gerald Horn, professor in the Department of Animal Science, worked with faculty in Agronomy and Agricultural Economics and the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station administration to get funding for the research unit. The goal was to focus on the dual purpose of wheat and to find answers for stockers that would bring economic benefits to their rural communities.

Today, that cooperation still exists. Horn emphasized the research and operations at Marshall are a collaborative effort among the faculty of the departments of animal science, plant and soil science, agricultural economics, and in some years entomology and plant pathology. That’s one of the attributes that make the Marshall Unit unique. The various faculty members sit down and identify research objectives and then work to accomplish them, Horn said.

The cross-departmental research approach at Marshall allows faculty to look at the dual purpose wheat has in Oklahoma and the Southern High Plains—for wheat production and for cattle grazing, Horn said. He explained that utilizing wheat pasture in the stocker cattle business is important to overall profitability—and something that may get taken for granted in beef production.

“From a timing standpoint, wheat pasture confers a huge advantage to beef production in the Southern Great Plains because it’s a time of the year when warm-season perennial pastures across the country are dormant and low in quality,” Horn explained. “Because they are low quality, they aren’t suited for growing cattle at very high rates of gain.” Wheat pasture, though, fills this void right about the same time that fall-weaned calves from spring-calving cowherds are ready to gain.

“Because wheat pasture is high in quality, there is potential for cattle to grow at fairly high rates of gain,” he said. And, because wheat pasture is so valuable, the prospects in prime wheat grazing country affect not just wheat markets but also the prices for most of the fall-weaned calves in the U.S.

“I tell the students in class, in the fall of the year, maybe late summer, early fall, you could be sitting in a sale barn in Hopkinsville, Ky., and you would know it rained in wheat pasture country without seeing a weather report,” Horn said. “As those pasture prospects for wheat pasture improve, it increases demand and the price for those cattle.”

If that weren’t enough, those cattle in a dual-purpose operation then turn around and give something back to the wheat farmer or landowner, Horn said. The landowner or wheat farmer often gets paid by the stocker cattleman on a per-pound-gained basis for allowing the wheat to be grazed. Horn said that can bring $150 or more per acre to the landowner or wheat farmer, and that can go toward input costs.

“It goes a long way toward paying the input costs for farming the wheat, the fertilizer and such,” Horn said. “But it also is a form of production risk management, as opposed to market risk management. In a sense it provides the landowner some protection in the case of unforeseen events like a late frost.” That wheat farmer or landowner isn’t just getting paid on the grain he raises but also from the cattle that gained on the wheat.

The Marshall Unit is unique in that it is large enough that it provides room for good replication of studies in 18 pastures, ranging in size from 18 to 24 acres each.

“This has allowed us to look at a whole gamut of variables,” Horn said, “such as planting date by stocking rate studies, selection of wheat varieties that are uniquely suited to dual-purpose production systems, supplementation programs, or the delivery of technologies like monensin and implants to cattle. Our research focuses on the interface of the two largest agricultural commodities in Oklahoma, beef cattle and wheat.” For research purposes, Horn said, they often source their cattle from ranches rather than from cattle auctions because they need uniformity in the cattle for their studies. For example, the cattle they just pulled off March 7 were fall-weaned calves, typically 480 to 500 pounds, all from the same Angus-based cow herd in north central Montana.

“It was an excellent set of cattle, with good growth potential and the ranch has a good health vaccination program that they went through before they were shipped to us,” Horn said. This set of cattle, even with the very cold winter, probably gained better than any other set at the station, he added, gaining 330 pounds the 114 days they were on wheat pasture at Marshall.

One research emphasis that is consistent on the animal science side of the work out at the Marshall Unit is comparing implanted cattle with non-implanted cattle. Horn reminds cattlemen all the time that while this technology is older, it’s still useful for improving the efficient gains of stocker cattle, up to about one-third of a pound of gain every day. With about 38 more pounds per calf, with increased protein deposition and decreased fat deposition, it pays for cattlemen to implant their stocker calves, Horn said.

Once cattle are finished grazing at the unit, some will be fed out at Oklahoma State facilities and some will go to commercial feed yards, but all are then followed on through the packing plant.

The field is wide open for future research projects at Marshall. For example, some trials might look into crop rotations and how that could affect profitability of the stocker cattle business and the grain business as well.

“For all these many years we’ve planted wheat after wheat, but producers are clearly seeing some advantages to rotating wheat with canola as far as increasing grain yields,” Horn said. “We might look at different cropping systems and incorporate rotations with canola as an example of future research.” Other projects might look at cover crops in the rotation or the direct comparison of cattle produced for the “natural” market versus conventional, or even looking at new compounds or technologies from animal health companies. Horn said there might also be projects looking into variability in cattle and their performance on wheat pasture. There will, of course, continue to be research into wheat varieties and their usefulness in a dual-purpose system.

The first 25 years of the Marshall Wheat Pasture Research Unit have provided cattlemen and wheat farmers invaluable information to benefit their bottom lines, and the next 25 years hold a lot of promise to continue.

“Marshall is, without question, the only facility like it in the United States,” Horn said. “We are a cattle and wheat state, and it gives us the capability of looking at the myriad of variables that can impact not only the profitability but also production risks producers face. And, hopefully have a positive effect on rural communities.”

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807 or by email at jlatzke@hpj.com.

Date: 4/7/2014



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