This year, many Oklahoma farmers chose not to import stocker cattle from southeastern states such as North Carolina and Virginia after souring on winter wheat grazing prospects, says Derrell Peel, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University.
"We had such potential and such high hopes six weeks ago, and it’s just really faded very dramatically," Peel says.
Optimism prevailed early on: Farmers got the wheat crop established and growing, but dry conditions paired with limited soil moisture have stopped that progress. Many producers were counting on winter wheat to make up for limited hay supplies, Peel says. That will stress farmers but shouldn’t by itself lead to many instances of herd liquidation.
What’s more, other cool-season forages such as rye and fescue are in the same shape as winter wheat. In most cases, forages are in limited supply and hay is in "marginally adequate" supply, Peel says. That will likely lead some farmers to feed cattle somewhere off-pasture.
The handful of producers who chose to import stocker cattle this winter will get the best return on their investment with heavier animals that started out between 575 and 600 lbs., Peel says. Those who bought lighter-weight steers of about 450 lbs. likely will only make money if they keep them long-term and put on at least 400 lbs. of gain.
But farmers can still profit from winter wheat, which is considered a dual-purpose crop, Peel says. The wheat will have potential as a grain as long as it survives any really cold temperatures.
Peel’s colleague, extension economist Kim Anderson, agrees that weather will be the deciding factor.
"It’s so dry, it’s going to be all about timely rain," Anderson says. USDA reported Nov. 14 that 79% of the winter wheat crop has emerged nationally, two percentage points behind last year. Meanwhile, 36% of the crop is in good to excellent condition, down 14 points from the same time last year.
The situation is much worse in Oklahoma, Anderson says, where just 13% of the crop is in good to excellent condition and 38% is poor to very poor.
"The wheat is up, but it’s very small, it’s subject to blowing," he says.
The 90-day forecast for the hard red winter wheat area–which includes states such as Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming and Montana–isn’t particularly encouraging because it calls for average moisture and above-average temperatures. But Anderson says the temperatures could reduce the probability of freeze damage and help winter wheat survive until it comes out of dormancy in March.
Two out of the three most recent winter wheat crops in similarly poor condition produced above average yields, Anderson says, referencing a recent Allendale study.