Tale of Two Crops

By: Jill J. Dunkel

Stocker operators, especially those in Texas, continue to feel the squeeze between high calf prices and an iffy wheat crop. A February deep freeze in the single digits damaged much of the wheat in the rolling plains of Texas, a region known for grazing stocker cattle on wheat pasture. Driving across the area, a majority of fields have a yellow tinge from Old Man Winter. p12

A mid-March rain in some areas did brighten the outlook, but for some stocker operators, it’s too little, too late. Fields had been unable to sustain typical stocking rates and many ranchers spent the month shipping cattle to reduce the load on the crop.

The goal is to keep stocker cattle on wheat pasture til May says Doug Dunkel, who grazes thousands of stocker cattle on wheat – on an average year. “We had a little rain in the fall to get the crop up. A few showers in the winter kept it going for a while, but without good moisture, we’ve had to ship a lot of cattle.”

Not only do the cattle have to find a place to go, they’re coming off the wheat early, and at much lighter weights than their break­evens had figured. “Many of these cattle were contracted, or we sold positions on the board. But when the cattle don’t make that weight, it wrecks a breakeven.”

Dunkel sold some cattle and others he sent on to feedyards. Rangeland and pastures in some areas of the state are rated very poor, and livestock producers were providing heavy supplemental feed, according to the Texas Agrilife Extension Service.

However, in some areas of Texas, spotty rains have the crop growing almost in front of the farmers’ eyes. “Where it hasn’t rained, I keep pulling off cattle. Where it has rained, guys are wishing they had more head to graze. Conditions are drastically different from one side of our county to the other,” Dunkel says. He cautioned that it’s difficult to make stocking decisions because more cattle may need to be relocated from droughty wheat.

Green bugs have invaded some area fields, forcing farmers to spend money on spraying to protect their crop. According to Dr. Travis Miller, Texas Agrilife Extension agronomist, “Much of the dryland wheat crop in the High Plains and Rolling Plains remains in very poor shape, with 87 percent of the crop rated from fair to very poor conditions. However, the irrigated crop is in relatively good shape. In my opinion, dryland wheat will be a below-average crop because of dry weather.”

Drought conditions continue for a fourth year in the Texas Panhandle, South Plains, Rolling Plains and parts of Central Texas. 

“Meanwhile, there is some hope on the horizon in the form of the possible development of an El Niño climatic pattern this year,” he said in a Texas Agrilife news release. “Current models are showing a chance of this development by midsummer.

A strong El Niño typically causes wetter and cooler conditions in Texas. “Right now they’re giving about a 50 percent chance for an El Niño, which is a little better than a corn toss,” he said.

Driving out of Texas, across Oklahoma and to Southwest Kansas, it’s the tale of two crops. Wheat in cattle feeding country around Dodge City is greening up with pretty even stands. That’s a welcome sight to farmers who didn’t get much of a stand last year. The USDA crop report for Kansas rated the state’s crop at 78 percent fair to good, although parts of the state suffered some winter kill.

As of press time, wheat markets continued to climb, initially on funds trading. However, Russia’s activity in Ukraine has driven the market even higher. “I don’t think the market is trading wheat conditions right now,” says commodity broker Bob Waters from Schwieterman, Inc., citing world events that he says could be influencing wheat markets.    

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