Assessing Wheat Crop Grain Versus Forage Economics

Bruce Clevenger, Farm Management Field Specialist and Jason Hartschuh, Dairy Management and Precision Livestock Field Specialist, Ohio State University Extension

Ohio’s soft red winter wheat is vulnerable to stresses by the weather and soil conditions during the winter and early spring.  March is often the month judgements are made about plant health that will relate to potential grain yield and spring nitrogen applications.  In 2023, areas of Ohio have received heavy rainfall causing water stress thus questioning the wheat grain yield potential.

Ohio National Ag Statistics Service 20-year trend yield for 2023 is 74 bu/acre.  In the past 10 years, 4 of 10 years yielded below 74 bu/ac and 4 of 10 years yielded above 74 bu/ac, leaving 2 of 10 years yielding 74 bu/ac.  Two noteworthy years below Ohio’s 74 bu/ac were 2015 (67 bu/ac) and 2019 (56 bu/ac).  According to Ohio Wheat Performance Test growing season notes, low yields in 2015 were attributed to wet weather in June and July and delayed harvest, while low yields in 2019 were attributed to slow early season wheat growth and development due to cool temperatures and above average precipitation.  High yields in 2016 (80 bu/ac) related to above average temperatures in March, which accelerated green-up with wheat surviving freezing temperatures in April and May.  High yields in 2021 (85 bu/ac) related to cool temperatures and adequate moisture, leading to a long grain fill period with favorable harvest conditions.

The Chicago Board of Trade July 23 wheat futures contract price peaked in mid-February at $8.00/bu, fell to the $6.70 levels, and recently approached $7.00 the last week of March.  Growers without confidence in wheat conditions most likely did not enter into a July 2023 wheat forward contract in February through March, leaving their commitments open to switching to other options if the wheat failed or was terminated.  Options could include: 1) keep the current wheat through harvest, 2) terminate the wheat and plant full season corn or soybean, or 3) harvest wheat as a forage and follow with a soybean or corn crop.  Keeping the current wheat may also be important if the grower needs straw production for use or sale.

Corn yields in central Ohio are generally maximized with planting dates April 23-29, closely followed by April 30 to May 7, with approximately 1 to 1.5 bu/day yield decline for delays beyond the first week of May.  Soybean yields in central Ohio are also maximized with planting dates at the end of April, with approximately ¼ to more than 1 bu/acre/day decline for delays beyond May 1st.

If terminating wheat is preferred, a full season corn or soybean crop remains realistic.  However, if the wheat crop is to be harvested as a forage, delayed corn and soybean planting will occur.  To maximize wheat as a forage, the crop will need to develop towards Feekes Growth Stage 10.0 (Boot) or 10.5 (Heading complete, pre flowering).  These growth stages typically will occur mid to late May (10.0) and late May to early June (10.5).  Using May 20 for Feekes 10.0, and planting corn or soybeans on May 21, the follow-up crop would have an estimated yield decline of 14 to 20 bu/ac and 4 to 14, respectively.  Using June 1 for Feekes 10.5 and planting corn or soybeans on June 2, the follow-up crop would have an estimated yield decline of 26 to 40 bu/ac and 8 to 32 bu/ac, respectively.

Based on research conducted over two years at 3 OSU research stations, a wheat silage crop receiving 50 lb/acre of spring nitrogen had an average yield of 1.8 ton/acre of dry matter when harvested at Feekes 10 and 2.25 tons/acre of dry matter when harvested at Feekes 10.5. The average crude protein was 11.5% and total digestible nutrients (TDN) was 65.7% with a Feekes 10 harvest. The crude protein declined to 10.19% and TDN to 60.3% as the crop matured to Feekes 10.5. Based on nutrient values in the January Buckeye Dairy news, this silage would have a nutrient value of $305/ton at Feekes 10.0 or $282/ton at Feekes 10.5. This leads to a silage crop value of $546 to 648/acre. The earlier harvest of wheat silage compared to grain harvest allows for double crop forages to be planted sooner. The earlier planting allows for corn silage to be planted as a double crop, teff, forage sorghum, sorghum-sudan, or a grain crop. The earlier planting of forage crops allows for near traditional single crop yields. Increasing teff grass harvest from once as a double crop to two or three in a year is advantageous. Sorghum-Sudangrass can also be managed in a multi-cut system with the first cutting 45 to 60 days after planting and an additional cutting 45 days later. Research conducted in New York showed a 10 ton as-harvested difference between corn silage planted the first of June versus the middle of July. Brown midrib (BMR) sorghum sudangrass also resulted in a yield decline of 4 tons/acre across the same planting date range. With a corn silage value of $50 per acre, an extra 10 tons/acre of corn silage increased corn silage value by $500/acre.

Wheat yields are not 100% predictable in March.  In fact, wheat yields can be surprisingly good or poor because there are conditions in the growing season coming later that will favor or lower grain yield.  Critical conditions contributing to high wheat yield would be having a long grain fill period with adequate moisture and avoiding the impacts of foliar and head diseases.  Prior to terminating or using alternative harvest of any wheat, always contact your crop insurance agent and check-in with the USDA-FSA office.