Supplementing Winter Wheat Pastures – Whats Needed and What Isn’t

By: Terri Queck Matzie

Grazing stocker cattle on winter wheat during the fall and winter months can provide cost-effective gains. Wheat pasture is succulent, palatable and nutritious – high in protein, energy and minerals.

“There are few feeding options in the southwestern United States that come anywhere near wheat pasture for stocker gains,” says ADM Beef Nutritionist Brian Fieser, PhD. But good isn’t perfect, and even winter wheat can benefit from supplementation.

Specific needs can vary by geographic location and weather. Trace minerals, in particular, will vary according to soil type, fertilizer application, and crop management.

In general, winter wheat will contain marginal to sufficient magnesium (Mg) and phosphorous (P), excess potassium (K), and deficient levels of calcium (Ca). “Zinc and copper are two trace minerals that tend to be low in winter wheat pasture,” says Fieser. Sodium (salt) is important for wheat pasture cattle, as it can balance the excess potassium in the forage.

Unless animals are headed for an all-natural program, Fieser recommends supplements containing ionophores. ADM officially uses an 0.18-0.24 lb/hd/day figure, explaining the increased performance comes from a change in rumen fermentation; and the subsequent improved digestibility of protein and energy, as well as increased mineral absorption.

Even on lush forage like winter wheat, cattle will likely benefit from additional energy and protein. That becomes a necessity when winter snows bury fields. During times of limited forage availability, the energy supplement should be fed at 1.25-1.5 percent of body weight. High quality hay makes a good option.

Added Energy
Supplemental feeds range from grains or grain by-products to silage and dry hay. Producer preference and herd management combined with availability are the deciding factors.

Studies have shown a grain or grain by-product energy supplement of 0.65-1 percent of body weight on a dry matter basis can increase gains up to 0.2-0.3 pounds per day. It can also increase stocking capacity by 25-30 percent, allowing for more animals per field. Typically, winter wheat forage without supplementation will support 250-500 pounds of animal per acre, or for the average 300-350 pound stocker calf, one to two acres per head.

Energy supplements are either high-starch (corn, sorghum, wheat, barley, oats) or high-fiber (wheat middlings, soybean hulls, corn gluten feed, distillers grains). Typically, by-product feeds will yield better conversions and fewer digestive disturbances than high-starch supplements in forage-based diets, because the rumen in a forage-fed animal is already adapted to a high-fiber diet.

A recent Oklahoma State study showed substantially lower conversion rates of corn-based high-starch supplement vs. a high-fiber supplement when fed at .75 percent of body weight. But when fed at lower rates, the difference was negligible, likely due to less disruption to the rumen microbial population and thus more efficient utilization.

Fieser says in his experience, cracked corn makes an ideal supplement, but some producers may find other options more economical.

There appears to be little difference in supplement form, as far as performance is concerned. Hand feeding has been shown to improve feed conversion by 33 percent over self-feeders, and feed increases should begin around two weeks prior to forage depletion to maintain performance and prevent over-grazing.

Is roughage needed?
Adding roughage in the form of low-quality forages may help counteract the richness of the wheat diet, but will not produce an increase in performance or intake. In fact, a Louisiana State University study showed cattle gained better without it.

“What an available bale of hay really shows us is how much wheat forage is out there,” explains Fieser. “If there is plenty of wheat, they won’t eat much of the hay. If they’re eating the hay, it says wheat forage is declining.”

Corn and sorghum silages can make excellent forage supplement, and several studies have shown their value in increasing stocker rates, reducing dry matter intake of wheat forage by up to 0.66 pounds for each dry matter pound of silage provided. Silage also has a positive effect on wheat forage digestibility.

“Be sure to consult your nutritionist to assess your operation’s specific needs,” says Fieser, “or you may end up giving cattle something they don’t need and don’t particularly want to eat. But when done right, and combined with good management practices, supplements can improve stocker performance and prediction accuracy.”

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