Managing wheat for forage and grain: The dual-purpose system

KSU eUPDATE – Dual-purpose wheat management (wheat grown for forage and grain) spreads production risks by providing producers a second source of income in addition to the harvested grain. If wheat grazing is managed properly, its grain yield penalty can be minimized.

If cattle are removed prior to first hollow stem, grazing wheat during late fall, winter, and early spring can reduce grain yields by 0 to 15% compared to wheat managed for grain only. If cattle is not removed prior to first hollow stem, greater grain yield reductions can occur. In years when early spring conditions are not favorable – such as when there is a spring freeze after some varieties have begun jointing – wheat that has been grazed may even outyield ungrazed wheat. That’s because moderate to heavy grazing will typically delay maturity a bit in the spring.

Overall, wheat pasture can provide high-quality forage when other forage sources are typically low in quality and quantity, and its management requires a few distinct considerations:

Seeding date. Early-planting is essential to ensure good fall forage production as long as soil moisture and temperature allows. Wheat grown under dual-purpose management is usually sown in September, at least two to three weeks earlier than wheat sown for grain-only. Research performed in north-central Oklahoma indicates that wheat fall forage production decreases approximately 1000 pounds per acre for each two-week delay in planting in September.

Seeding rate. Dual-purpose wheat management requires seeding rates 1.5 to 2.0 times greater than that for grain-only management.

Basic Recommended Seeding Rates for Kansas
Precipitation Zone Grain only (lbs/acre) Dual –purpose forage + grain production (lbs/acre)
Less than 20 40-60 60-90
20-30 50-60 75-120
More than 30 60-75 90-120
Irrigated 60-90 90-120

Seeding depth. Earlier planting date results in wheat planted into hotter soils. Increased soil temperature decreases the coleoptile length of germinating wheat, which can affect emergence of deep-planted seeds. Therefore, if moisture is not available in the top inch or inch-and-a-half of the soil profile, it is preferable to seed shallower and hope for rain (“dust the wheat in”) than to try to reach moisture deeper in the profile.

Variety selection. Wheat varieties grown under dual-purpose management should germinate well under high soil temperatures (> 85°F), should have excellent grazing potential in the fall, and recover well from grazing. Genetic resistance to barley yellow dwarf, wheat streak mosaic, and Hessian fly are also valuable traits as early planted wheat is at greater risk of damage by these diseases and pests.

Nitrogen fertility. Approximately 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre are needed to produce 1000 pounds of wheat forage. Thus, nitrogen requirements of dual-purpose wheat are greater than that of grain-only wheat. Nitrogen removed by grazing should be accounted for by additional pre-plant nitrogen fertilizer or by a topdress application during spring to ensure proper grain formation.

Soil pH. Acidic soils are an especially important issue when growing wheat for forage and grain. Wheat forage production is more impacted by low soil pH than wheat grain yield, and extremely acidic soils can decrease forage production even in low pH tolerant varieties (Figure 1). A minimum soil pH of approximately 6 is needed to maximize wheat fall forage production for most wheat varieties. In-furrow phosphorus fertilizer can be used as a strategy to ameliorate the effects of low soil pH and increase wheat forage production in acidic soils.

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Romulo Lollato, Wheat and Forages Specialist and Stu Duncan, Northeast Area Crops and Soils Specialist, Kansas State University

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