Wheat pasture is a great resource for providing forage resources to cattle in the late fall, winter and early spring when other options are limited.

Corrigan mark
Director of Technical Service / MS Biotec / Axiota Company
Beef Technical Services / Lallemand Animal Nutrition, North America

Having a high crude protein content (20 percent or more) is a great resource for stockers and can be utilized in an intermittent grazing system to supply sufficient protein to cows if other low-protein feedstuffs are available.

Depending on the year, stocking rates usually range from 250 to 500 pounds per acre and stocker cattle can gain two pounds or more, providing 500 to 1,000 pounds per acre.

According to the U.S. drought monitor, the majority of the U.S. plains regions are in severe or worse drought conditions.

This obviously will impact both demand for and availability of wheat pasture in that area. Additionally, with the lack of rain this summer the supply of harvested forages will be quite low this winter.


With this anticipated lack of available winter feeds, the need for wheat pasture to sustain herds increased dramatically this year over previous years.

However, with the drought comes issues associated with the lack of soil moisture necessary to sustain tiller and root growth in some areas.

Some timely rains may help alleviate this, but where those will happen remains to be seen. There are some areas where it appears that there will be some wheat available for grazing and, by the time you read this article, the picture will be much clearer.

The availability of wheat pasture gives considerable flexibility in providing the nutrition needs for beef cattle.

Flexibility is centered around grazing techniques chosen by management. Continuous and rotational schemes exist that have practical applications.

Labor availability, class of cattle and stored/stockpiled feedstuffs often dictate the grazing scheme.

Limit-grazing cattle on wheat pasture for two hours per day can provide a sustainable level of nutrition for a dry beef cow.

Creep-grazing wheat pasture by nursing calves can increase calf weight and improve the reproductive efficiency of a cow herd through improved body condition score.

Areas of caution

Although grazing small cereal grains, such as wheat, have many associated benefits, the practice is not without risk.

Cattle should be closely monitored for specific health-related issues. Wheat pasture poisoning and grass tetany are metabolic conditions that cause excitable, aggressive cattle in early stages that progress to a downer animal in a convulsive state, followed by a comatose presentation in late stages before resulting in death.

Low serum levels of calcium and magnesium have been associated with these conditions.

Attention to mineral supplementation and treatment of affected cases with a calcium/magnesium solution is important.

Consultation with a veterinarian is recommended in situations that predispose cattle to wheat pasture poisoning and grass tetany.

Nitrate poisoning may occur in cattle grazing wheat that has suffered plant stress such as drought or frost and freeze or hail.

These stressors may elevate the level of plant nitrate to a toxic level. Fertilization with high levels of nitrogen has also been associated with nitrate poisoning in cattle grazing wheat pasture.

Testing the forage for nitrate levels will provide valuable information concerning the safety of grazing suspect forage.

Bloat may affect cattle grazing wheat pasture. The high protein and soluble carbohydrates levels of wheat and cool, moist weather have been associated with occurrence of bloat.

Provision of an ionophore as well as allowing cattle access to lower-quality forage/hay will aid in preventing bloat problems.

The high levels of protein in forages (small cereal grains/legumes) may produce elevated blood urea nitrogen levels (BUN) in cows which has been associated with a temporary decrease in cow fertility (lowered conception rates while on lush forage).

This effect can be alleviated by limit-grazing cows that are in the breeding season and/or dilution of the high-protein forage with lower-quality feedstuffs.

Good management practices such as feeding an ionophore, a direct-fed microbial (DFM) and/or using an approved implant are even more important this year with the anticipated shortage of all feedstuffs. Utilizing these resources can increase wheat pasture gains by up to 0.75 pounds per day.

With the lack of other pasture resources, if wheat pasture is available it makes both economic and environmental sense to utilize it in the most efficient manner.

From an economic standpoint, when feedstuff costs are high, a producer requires a greater price for feeder cattle to provide a return.

With the high prices we are seeing for feeder cattle, adding weight becomes even more economically important and producers that don’t utilize these technologies are at a much greater disadvantage than they were just a few years ago.

From an environmental standpoint, if we don’t utilize available resources as efficiently as possible this year there may be a reduced tendency to allow stressed pastures to rest for a sufficient amount of time to allow them to recover from this historically unfavorable weather.