Two years ago, Nebraska Farmer featured a young cattle producer and his family on the cover and inside spread of our May issue, followed by a series of features for the next several months.
The cattle producer, Tyler Burkey of Milford, has created a system that integrates grazing annual forages and perennial pastures, using pivot fences and a series of paddocks and lanes for rotational grazing, and using hoop buildings to provide flexibility in his cow-calf herd.
Recently, Nebraska Farmer caught up with Burkey to discuss some takeaways from using this unique system over the past two years — and adjustments moving forward.
One of the biggest steps ahead, Burkey says, is introducing more perennials to improve soil health through bigger, longer-lasting root systems, and emulate native prairie.
"Back when we raised alfalfa, where you leave the stands in five years roughly, then we'd take them out and go into a row crop,” Burkey says. “We're leaning toward that with our grazing system. Think about alfalfa fields when they come out of production and we plant them to corn. That alfalfa has rooted down well and the fields are just like a sponge. And the fertility in those fields — we barely had to put any fertilizer on to raise a large amount of corn."
It started last fall and winter, when soil conditions were already wet. Burkey wasn't able to seed cover crops when he wanted, and when this spring turned out to be even wetter, he didn't get the forage production he needed.
"If we would've had these perennial forages established, we wouldn’t have had as much of an issue," he says. "A lot of our forages got 4 inches tall, and when it got cool, they stopped growing and put us behind. That's what we're trying to eliminate."
So, this year, he seeded about 40 acres of Italian ryegrass, alfalfa and crabgrass — not a permanent stand, he notes, but one he'll rotate to a cash crop such as corn in five or six years. He also seeded chicory — a woody perennial often found in roadside ditches and pastures — with turnips earlier this spring, and plans to seed perennial ryegrass, orchardgrass and festulolium (a cross between meadow fescue and Italian or perennial ryegrass) in August.
By introducing perennials into a rotation with annual cash crops, he's hoping to get more fibrous root growth deeper into the soil, and ultimately, more infiltration, water-holding capacity and organic matter. Similar production systems have been used in places such as the Pampas — the fertile plains of Argentina — and it isn't entirely different from rotating from alfalfa to corn.
"When we're constantly changing our crop with annuals, I don’t think we're getting the root system in place long enough to break through the hardpan that we inherited," he adds. "What if we put some perennial forages in? They may not last 10 or 12 years but might be good for five or six years and really root down for us. Then we can graze them and go back to a row crop for X number of years before going back to a perennial instead of rotating every other year."
That doesn't mean he's going to rely solely on perennial grasses and legumes for forage — annual cover crops have a place and serve a great benefit in the rotation, he says.
"What saved us this year is our cereal rye,” Burkey says. “In the fields we grazed continuously last year, volunteer rye came back this spring. So, even though we didn't get it seeded, we had enough rye to graze for a while. We put cows out around April 15, and they were there roughly a month. We planted corn in those fields May 15 to 20, and it was like a garden. It was easy to plant and there was good moisture. Having covers out there is really important. With the amount of cattle we're running, if we wouldn't have that mat, if we were farming with heavy tillage, this wouldn't work."
Burkey hopes to accompany this change with an adjustment in his grazing schedule. Rather than rotating through paddocks every two to three days, he plans to rotate every day — flash grazing.
"An analogy would be mowing your lawn — if you just clip it off, in four days you have to mow it again,” he says. “The same with cattle. If you can clip it off and keep moving them, it stimulates aboveground biomass and roots to keep growing. Now we're looking at moving every day, which isn't hard, because we're set up in 10-acre paddocks, which just need to be cut in half. That gives us more grazing cells, and I think we could do a better job of managing the forage we've got."
Burkey points out that the cow-calf system is designed to be flexible and adaptable to different situations. The introduction of more perennials in the rotation is just the next step.
"It's not a new strategy. This just takes it to the next step," he says. "It's about not being afraid to change and maintaining flexibility. Looking at what's happening around us — how do we become more efficient and adapt? That's where we're at today."