Estimating the optimal time to remove cattle from wheat pasture (if you still have pasture to graze…) – First Hollow Stem Update

Amanda de Oliveira Silva, Small Grains Extension Specialist

The wheat growing season up to this point has been extremely tough, to say the least. The forage situation has been a kick-in-the-knees. It was challenging to get a stand established and wheat pasture with limited rainfall since planting. By January 30, most of Oklahoma had not seen any significant precipitation for more than 90 days (Figure 1). Last week’s winter storm helped improve conditions in some areas, but western OK continues to be dry (Figure 2). As a result, many producers have already grazed as much as possible and removed their cattle, or they have not even had the chance to graze. For the few producers who still have pasture to graze, leaving some leaf tissue after grazing will be important for having any chance of a decent grain crop. Ideally, there should be a minimum of 60% canopy coverage (measured from the Canopeo app) left to allow the crop to recover from grazing (PSS-2170).

Figure 1. Consecutive days with less than 0.25 inches of rainfall on January 30, 2022.
Figure 2. Consecutive days with less than 0.25 inches of rainfall after the winter storm (top figure) and plant available water in the soil (bottom figure) on February 6, 2022.

The first hollow stem stage (FHS) indicates the beginning of stem elongation, or just before the jointing stage. It is a good indicator for when producers should remove cattle from wheat pasture. This occurs when there is 1.5 cm (5/8”, or the diameter of a dime) of stem below the developing grain head (see full explanation). This is the optimal period because it gives enough time for the crop to recover from grazing and rebuild the canopy. Also, the added cattle weight gains associated with grazing past the FHS are not enough to offset the value of the potential reduced grain yield (1-5% every day past FHS). The wheat variety, severity of grazing, time when cattle are removed, and weather conditions after cattle removal determine how much grain yield potential might be reduced.

The Mesonet First Hollow Stem Advisor was developed by researchers at Oklahoma State University to help predict when FHS is nearing. This is an online tool available on the Mesonet website. This tool uses soil temperature data to show the current probability of FHS occurrence and 1-week and 2-week projections. With this tool, producers can select their variety from a list of varieties that separates them into three FHS categories: early, middle, and late. Then, maps can be generated to provide the probability of FHS based on current conditions and the 1- and 2-week projections. Charts and tables can also be generated for individual Mesonet sites. Created maps have a color scheme to represent the probability of FHS occurrence. When using this tool, it is recommended to start scouting for FHS from a non-grazed part of the field once the 5% probability is reached (green color). Because stem elongation will begin moving quickly as the air temperature rises, starting your scouting at the 5% level will help give you the time it takes for making the preparations for cattle removal by the time FHS occurs. Methods on how to scout for FHS are listed at the end of this post. For producers who do not scout, it is recommended to remove cattle when the 50% probability level is reached. A 50% probability level indicates that over an evaluated period (e.g., 10 years), FHS would have occurred by that date in 50% of those years (e.g., 5 years). The same interpretation is used for other probability levels.

To give an example of what the tool provides and show some of the FHS conditions around Oklahoma, I have generated some statewide maps below. For producers along the southern Oklahoma border who planted an “early” wheat variety (e.g., Gallagher), now would be the time to go out and start scouting for FHS (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Current FHS probabilities for “early” wheat varieties.

Looking at the 1-week projection for early maturing FHS varieties, you can see how the probabilities have increased, and areas further north should begin scouting (Figure 4).

Figure 4. One-week FHS projection (i.e., through February 14) for “early” wheat varieties.

For producers who planted late-maturing FHS varieties (e.g., LCS Chrome), the 1-week projections indicate producers across much of the state still have a little bit of time before beginning to scout (Figure 5).

Figure 5. One-week FHS projections (i.e., through February 14) for “late” (bottom) wheat varieties.

Remember that this tool should be used as a proxy to begin scouting for FHS. The best estimate of FHS is still to split stems from plants in each field to determine where they are developmentally. Another word of caution I want to mention when using the tool for this year especially is to consider when you were finally able to get stand establishment. If this did not occur until the end of September to the beginning of October, this tool may be a little ahead of where your plants are developmentally. In this case, the tool can still give you the cue to start scouting. Checking for FHS in each field will let you know if you do have some grazing time left.

Methods for scouting for FHS:

  • Check for FHS in a non-grazed area of the same variety and planting date. Variety can affect FHS date by as much as three weeks and planting date can affect it even more.
  • Dig or pull up a few plants and split the largest tiller longitudinally (lengthways), and measure the amount of hollow stem present below the developing grain head. You must dig plants because the developing grain head may still be below the soil surface at this stage.
  • If there is 1.5 cm (~5/8″) of hollow stem present, it is time to remove cattle. 1.5 cm is about the same as the diameter of a dime (see picture below).
  • More detailed information on FHS can be found at wheat.okstate.edu under ‘Wheat Management’ then ‘Grazing’ or by clicking here.
The first hollow stem growth stage is reached when there is 1.5 cm of hollow stem (about the diameter of a dime) below the grain head.

Similar to previous years, we will monitor FHS occurrence in our wheat plots at Stillwater and Chickasha and report the findings on this blog. Remember that we use an accelerated growth system to report the earliest onset of the FHS stage. Trials are seeded early to simulate a grazed system, but the forage is not removed. Varieties reported here with the earliest FHS date should be the first to monitor in commercial fields. In practice, wheat that is grazed will likely reach FHS stage later than reported here, and differences between varieties will likely moderate.

The latest FHS results for each variety planted in our forage trial at Stillwater are listed below (Table 1). A few varieties were near FHS (values at or above 1.5 cm) before the winter storm last week, and values are likely to move quickly with warmer conditions in Oklahoma.

Table 1. First hollow stem (FHS) results for each variety collected at Stillwater. Plots were planted on 09/27/21 but not grazed or clipped. The threshold target for FHS is 1.5 cm (5/8″ or the diameter of a dime). The value of hollow stem for each variety represents the average of ten measurements. Varieties exceeding the threshold are highlighted in red.

This entry was posted in first hollow stem, variety testing and tagged by Amanda De Oliveira Silva. Bookmark the permalink.

About Amanda De Oliveira Silva

I have served as an Assistant Professor and Small Grains Extension Specialist at Oklahoma State University since August 2019. I believe that close interaction with producers is vital to understand their production strategies and to establish realistic research goals. My program focuses on developing science-based information to improve the agronomic and economic viability of small grains production in Oklahoma and in the Southern Great Plains.

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