The cattle tend to follow meandering, seemingly random paths through Bo Dougan's wheat fields. The foot-wide ribbons of bare soil are testament to the producer's uniqueness: Dougan is one of few Arkansas producers running cattle on winter wheat pasture.
Dougan, a longtime central-Arkansas farmer, controls about 7,000 acres just off I-40, east of North Little Rock in Pulaski County. About half his acres are cropland for rice, soybeans, wheat and cattle.
“We have a water supply, a lake, on the farm. A spillway goes out of the lake into a bayou that eventually drains into Bayou Meto. Every drop of water on the 7,000 acres that we can recycle and re-circulate, we do.”
Dougan has always raised cattle. For only nine months since 1960 has he been without cattle to care for. 1960 also happens to be the first year he raised wheat for the animals to graze on.
“Wheat pasture has done very well for me. Out of all that time, only a few years have been bad luck with it. We can take thin cattle in the fall and, if we've got a good stand of wheat, the cattle gain weight during the winter. That's even with a calf on them. The caveat is you've got to have good wheat to make that work. But it isn't uncommon.”
Dougan never takes his wheat to harvest. Instead, he turns it under in the spring. Doing so provides “a good cover crop.”
Cattle on wheat wasn't always such an oddity. “I come from around 20 miles south of here,” said Dougan. “We used to put two strands of barbed wire around a field. We had 500 acres of cotton back then. Cottonseed is a good feed for cattle so we'd turn them onto the cotton and soybean stubble. Then someone suggested planting a little wheat for them.
“We've been doing this since back in the 1950s. When I was still at home, my father had cattle and we did it then. We had airplanes sow the wheat and then prayed for rain. It worked then and still does.”
As Dougan is the right producer and his land is in the right spot, Al Beuerman, Pulaski County Extension agent, and John Richeson, state Extension Beef Improvement Program associate, figured he might help them with a project.
“We're working with Bo to check the economics of growing the wheat, raising it, and taking cattle off and on it,” said Beuerman. “In this state, most of the time, you're either a cattleman or a row-crop farmer. Bo walks in both worlds easily and that makes him extremely well-suited for this project.
“We'll take some of the wheat to harvest after taking cattle off it just to see what yields will be. We want to check anything that might be economical.”
If the right balance can be attained, “this could be something farmers — especially in eastern Arkansas — could do. Maybe there's a way to have both row-crops and cattle on the same land.”
For the first year of the project, the researchers are mainly waiting to see how things play out. “This is a discovery year, really,” said Richeson, a recent arrival from his native Oklahoma. “There are several items we're aiming to track, though.”
One such item is forage availability as cattle go on wheat. Another involves restriction cages in the wheat field being studied. “Before the cattle were turned on we put three restriction cages inside an approximately 25-acre field. In the spring, we'll return and see what wheat inside the cage looks like when it isn't grazed.”
If a producer wants to take a wheat pasture to harvest, first hollow stem is usually when cattle are pulled off in the spring. Next spring, at first hollow stem, a second enclosure will be placed around the three original cages.
By doing so, the researchers can check any yield differences between grazed and non-grazed wheat.
Not surprisingly, a lot of work has already been done on such topics in Oklahoma and Kansas. “I grew up in Oklahoma and have experience with the grazing systems,” said Richeson. “Typically, grain yields on hard red winter wheat are very similar between grazed and non-grazed. There's an added benefit in the grazed fields through tillering.”
While research on hard red winter wheat has been done, the dominant wheat grown in Arkansas is soft red winter. Richeson isn't sure how well the Midwest research translates to the Mid-South.
“Around here, it's different than the Oklahoma system and there's been no work done on grazing soft red winter wheat. So, we're looking for answers.”
Much of the current project coincides with the work of Paul Beck, Merle Anders and Don Hubble, all Arkansas Extension researchers working on similar pasture questions at the Batesville, Ark., research facility (editor's note: for more on the Batesville work see http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/farming_mix_row_crops/index.html).
Anders, a soil specialist stationed in Stuttgart, Ark., will get involved in the Dougan project later on. “We want to check soil compaction and other issues he's an expert in,” said Richeson. “This year, we're concentrating on performance, grazing days and yield difference. Jason Kelley (Arkansas Extension wheat specialist) will also be a huge help with this.”
With the Dougan project, Richeson admits he's hoping to change perceptions about wheat pastures. “This is an economic opportunity that should be considered. It's a way to diversify an operation either through a row-crop farmer purchasing stocker cattle themselves or, more likely, working with cattlemen in their off-season.
“On a pasture lease, fees typically run 30 cents to 35 cents per pound of gain. And if the farmer can come back and combine the same amount of wheat as in non-grazed fields, then that's major.”
What are some of the concerns row-crop farmers talk to Richeson about in bringing cattle onto their fields?
“Fencing is one — there just aren't any fences in eastern Arkansas anymore. We believe that can be solved easily through electric fencing, or hot wire.”
Water is another issue of concern. “There are opportunities through USDA incentive programs to solve that one, though.”
Another issue raised is terracing. “There is certainly concern about terraces potentially being compacted and irrigation channels being hurt by cattle traffic.”
Another issue is when to pull cattle off fields. This, said Richeson, depends on soil type. “If soils are sandier and drain well, cattle can be left out a lot longer. However, there are concerns about how much rainfall can be tolerated before moving cattle off a field. And, of course, you must have an alternative area to move cattle to.”
When you're grazing cattle on wheat, the crop doesn't present nutrition issues but forage availability ones. “Wheat is a very good feed with plenty of protein and energy for growth,” said Richeson. “It almost always meets lactating cow requirements.”
But with wheat, forage availability is always a concern.
“You want to have the wheat planted by the end of September to insure fall grazing. You want to fertilize in the fall and hope for enough rain to get it into the soil. With normal rain, a good grazing fall is the norm.”
Dougan tries to plant wheat in soybean fields on the last week of August or the first week of September. “As soon as we get the soybeans out and see a front with rain potential coming at us, we try to put out some fertilizer. We usually use a buggy to do that.”
If a rain comes, Dougan usually waits until mid- to late November before turning the cattle onto the field. A good stand of wheat will be 8 to 10 inches tall by then.
This fall, the fields the researchers are watching didn't achieve a decent stand until late. “We planted the wheat, by airplane, the first week of September. It just wouldn't come up — not enough rain. After we cut the beans, I went back in the bean stubble with a no-till drill and planted more wheat. A rain came and the wheat came up and began growing pretty well.”
Are there wheat varieties better-suited to pasture?
“As far as I know there hasn't been a lot of research on what soft red winter varieties may be best for this type of program,” said Beuerman. “We definitely want to know if there are varieties better-suited for a dual purpose. Because wheat pasture grazing is rare in Arkansas, we just don't know right now.”
Currently, Dougan has planted DeltaGrow 4500.
“It's supposed to have resistance to leaf rust, although it has the rust this fall,” said Beuerman. “I've been told by wheat specialists and plant pathologists that sometimes juvenile wheat plants get rust. Then later in the spring as the plant gains growth, it develops resistance to the rust. It'll be interesting to see if the rust appears on this wheat next spring.”
Dougan's wish-list includes a university wheat variety that would fit his system better. “I'd like the University of Arkansas to develop a wheat seed we could buy at market price to plant. It's tough to pay $7.50 for a sack of wheat we won't even cut for yield. Actually, it's hard to find cheap wheat seed unless you raise your own. Nowadays, when you plant two or more bushels, it costs a lot of money.”
Sludge from a nearby water treatment plant was put out on some of Dougan's fields last summer. It's easy to see where. The fields with sludge are markedly greener with healthy wheat.
“The sludge has had a definite effect,” said Dougan. “It was injected into the ground in early summer. They let the sludge from the treatment center dry down to a certain moisture and then bring it out in a big truck and inject it about 6 inches deep.”
How does Dougan deal with compaction? “Usually in the spring we hip the ground up. We used to work the ground with chisel plows and V-rippers and do it up right. But since diesel fuel got so high, we don't do that anymore.
“We go into the bean stubble and roll it into a bed. We let a shower melt it down a little and then we hip it back up again. We might hip three times. Then, we knock the tops of beds off — or roll them down if the soil is soft enough — and plant on top. I don't have all the answers, but I know that grazing cattle on green pastures is much cheaper than feeding them hay.”