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Can cattle help beleaguered wheat bulls?

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Can cattle come to the aid of beleaguered wheat bulls?

The rains refreshing drought-hit central and southern Plains hard red winter wheat areas have revived yield prospects such that futures in the class closed on Thursday at their lowest since July 2010, on a spot contract basis.

However, many of those recovered bushels may never make it to harvest, and end up in the stomachs of some of the region's large cattle population - as farmers opt to use wheat as grazing for high-priced cattle rather than allow it to develop into lowly-valued grain.

"Farmers are trying to figure out what to do in an environment when, cotton prices are down, wheat prices are low, corn prices are terrible," Mark Welch at Texas A&M University said.

"About the only thing working for them is cattle."

Cattle prices, while down from October's record highs, remain historically elevated, in contrast to the near-five-year low in hard red winter wheat.

Key deadline

The idea that farmers have increased use of wheat for pasture has yet to show up in official data.

"It may become clearer on April 24," when the US Department of Agriculture unveils monthly statistics on the flow of cattle to and from feedlots, Dr Welch said.

However, Dr Welch flagged "anecdotal evidence" that an unusually large farmers who have opted to put their cattle on winter wheat – which comes with a yield penalty, but saves on feed bills – did not remove the cattle at a key mid-March deadline.

"Typically, the data to pull cattle off wheat is March 15," if the crop is to be saved for grain, Dr Welch told Agrimoney.com.

'Grazed out'

According to the USDA, "while most wheat-pasture cattle were removed from wheat in mid-March in order to prevent damage to the wheat joint or growing point", the unusually large weight of feeder cattle being sold at auction implies that many animals were left to graze longer.

Indeed, "anecdotal evidence suggests that not all cattle in Texas have yet been moved off winter wheat" at all, the department said in a report.

"Recent increases in feeder cattle prices could lead to some wheat being grazed out."

Follow-on crops

Farmers typically gain some two months extra grazing by keeping cattle on wheat, before the crop loses its nutritional value, Dr Welch said.

If the cattle are removed in time, that can still leave scope for planting another crop for harvesting this year, albeit one unlikely to yield strongly.

"If the conditions are right, there is the time to plant a spring crop," Dr Welch said.

"Farmers may still be able to plant cotton or sorghum, or in some cases even corn."

And while the USDA highlighted the trend in Texas farmers using winter wheat as pasture, it is a dynamic that may be being repeated in parts of Oklahoma and Kansas too, he said.

Yield considerations

That said, the potential for offering support to wheat prices from the area grazed out may be limited.

"This strategy typically makes sense in lower-yielding areas, or where production risk is greater," Dr Welch said.

Perhaps, in Texas, for the southern high plains, where dryness means that "wheat is probably not that great anyway".

But "getting into higher yielding areas, say in Kansas, the equation alters," and sticking with wheat to harvest makes more financial sense.

It may take a further lurch lower in wheat prices to persuade core Kansas growers that their wheat is better grazed than harvested.

By Mike Verdin

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