Baling or ensiling freeze-damaged wheat to take advantage of drought-induced higher forage prices might be the best option for some producers, said Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

Producers would need to determine how much forage they have in the field, said Dr. Larry Redmon, AgriLife Extension state forage specialist in College Station, and compare the economics of harvesting for grain to harvesting for hay.

“When it turns dry, people get desperate, and that hay can be worth quite a bit,” Redmon said.“Back in 2011 during the drought, the last round-bales of hay into Abilene were priced at $180 a bale. If the bales weighed 1,000 pounds, that’s $360 a ton. I would use current market prices to start figuring the crop’s potential as hay.”

Dr. Calvin Trostle, AgriLife Extension agronomist in Lubbock, said there is no substitute for assessing a field to see how much damage is there and knowing what potential it has.

“Yes, for many fields we know now or will soon know that they may not be worth carrying to grain,” Trostle said. “And how much grain is ‘worth it’ if we have to keep irrigating: 15 or 20 or 25 or 30 bushels per acre?”

A producer will have to determine how much forage tonnage he can expect to get from the damaged wheat crop, and there’s no simple method to do that, the experts said.

“I don’t have a simple means to gauge the approximate tonnage of a wheat field or other small-grain forage field,” Trostle said. “You eye it and estimate, though it is an educated estimate.”

Redmon said if it was a pasture, forage would be estimated by taking a 12-inch quadrant and cut, dry and weigh the forage in that quadrant to extrapolate pounds per acre. But with a drilled crop, generally grown on 7- to 8-inch rows, that measurement has to be tweaked a little.

“Estimating forage for crops planted in rows requires adjustments for row spacing to arrive at a reasonable estimate,” he said.

Then the producer has to compare the tonnage of hay possible from an acre to the possible wheat grain yield. Grazing freeze-damaged wheat, which is most likely a bearded variety, at this point is not a likely option, except for wheat in the northern Panhandle. The emergence of bearded heads greatly reduces the usability of the forage as feed due to the awns.

“How much hay could we get off an acre – maybe a ton, which might be worth $125 up to $180 a ton, depending on how the rest of the year goes,” Redmon said. “Versus, if they harvest 10 bushels of wheat, they would get $7 per bushel – so the hay harvest looks good.”

Some of the questions to be considered, Trostle said, are: What are hay prices? Who pays for haying? What are silage prices? If silage price includes a percent crude protein criterion, will the price be discounted heavily if percent crude protein is not met?

Also, Trostle notes a hidden “cost” of forage production – one that wheat grain growers may not have factored in their consideration – is the amount of nutrients moved off the field in the forage. Depending on the wheat growth stage, it could cost $30 to $50 to replace the nitrogen and other nutrients leaving the field in a ton of dry wheat hay.

“Right now haying yield-damaged wheat appears to be the best option,” said Dr. Steve Amosson, AgriLife Extension economist in Amarillo. “The drought has resulted in very good prices for wheat hay. Currently, these prices are running from $145 to $175 per ton.

“New crop wheat offers are about $7.15 per bushel, which is historically a good price, but by the time you adjust for harvest expenses for both hay and grain options, it appears that you will have to harvest approximately 20 bushels of wheat to get the equivalent net returns from harvesting a ton of wheat hay,” Amosson said.