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Cow-calf system lays groundwork for flexibility, growth

Eastern Nebraska cow-calf producer makes most of resources available with annual forages, crop residue, perennial pasture and hoop barns.

Tyler Harris

March 31, 2017

6 Min Read
EASTERN NEBRASKA RESOURCES: EJ Habrock (left) with K-Line Irrigation and Tyler Burkey stand in a cornstalk field, while Burkey's cows graze. While pasture acres in eastern Nebraska are limited, the area has productive soils, adequate rainfall and ample crop residue.

Tyler Burkey has been described as a nontraditional farmer. That's fine with Burkey, who designed his cow-calf system west of Milford to be anything but traditional. "As I've thought about it, I take it as a compliment," he says. "We're not traditional."

In this case, nontraditional means flexibility for the next generation. Burkey and his wife, Megan, have two children — son Luke, 8, and daughter Sydney, 9. "Our success will be determined based on how those kids do, or how their kids do after this is all in place," he says. "I think it's flawed to think you'll bring family members back by buying another quarter. You've got to be more creative than that."

The farm has been in Burkey's family for five generations, and although his father, Jerry, and mother, Susan, both worked in Lincoln before retiring, Tyler Burkey still spent plenty of time on the family farm growing up. After graduating from UNL in 2000 and working off the farm, he decided to return to his rural roots and began doing custom hay work and later raised cow-calf pairs.

A year ago, while he was seeking a portable watering system for his paddocks, Burkey enlisted the help of EJ Habrock, territory manager of product development at K-Line Irrigation, Madison, and the two hit it off. "I don't want to see the next generation missing out on these opportunities," Habrock says. "So we started brainstorming. Tyler and I talk once or twice a day on the phone. I get down here a lot."

The system that Burkey and Habrock are piecing together has taken a lot of fine-tuning. Pasture acres in eastern Nebraska are limited. However, eastern Nebraska also has productive soils, adequate rainfall and ample amounts of crop residue. Burkey's system capitalizes on all of these, using rotational grazing of cool-season pastures, grazing crop residues and annual forage and cover crops, and raising pairs under roof in three hoop buildings. A number of producers use these practices, but Burkey’s goal is to combine them in a way that's flexible.

"Everybody's looking for the silver bullet," says Habrock. However, there is no one single solution, he adds. "You've got to take a piece out of everything and put those pieces together."

Whole-systems approach
Burkey's cool-season pastures, which include orchardgrass, smooth brome, meadow brome and nontoxic endophyte fescue, take up one quarter, and are used when annual forages and crop residues aren't available for grazing, giving Burkey a chance to establish cover crops. Cool-season fescue is also suitable for stockpile-grazing in winter.

On his crop acres, Burkey is rotating cash crops with cool- and warm-season cover crop mixes. This includes cool-season crops like rye, oats, turnips and forage peas, usually planted in early to mid-August, eventually following corn or soybean harvest. These are grazed in fall, winter and early spring. On one quarter, Burkey is growing a continuous cover crop. After grazing cool-seasons in spring, he'll plant a warm-season mix like millet, sorghum sudangrass and corn for summer grazing.

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DIFFERENT FORAGES, DIFFERENT TIMES: Tyler Burkey is using both cool-season and warm-season cover crop mixes to graze. When one cover crop is being grazed, something else has time to be established or regrow.

"We can turn cows onto grass. That allows us to harvest corn; then they can go to cornstalks," Burkey says. "We have flexibility to get our crops grown. You've got to have a time frame in mind."

This means that when one cover crop is being grazed, something else has to have time to be established. This way Burkey hopes to plant different forages at different times, so they're available to graze at different times. Different groups of cattle grazing different forages make the most use of the forage resources available.

While Burkey plans to graze most of the year, mud is a challenge in eastern Nebraska, especially during calving season. This is where the hoop buildings come in.

When cows and calves are in the barn, it changes energy and nutrient requirements substantially. "When they're outside on pasture, they have to walk and work," says Habrock. "In the barn, they don't use energy to keep warm. When it's 100 degrees F outside, it's 10 to 15 degrees cooler in the barn."

This takes some of the stress out of calving. After calving, pairs spend 120 days in the barns before weaning, when cows leave to graze cornstalks. With these buildings, Burkey also has the added flexibility of being able to background and finish calves. He can also vary the number of cattle that are grazing and reduce grazing pressure when needed. It allows him to determine which age group of cattle will make optimal use of the forage resource available.

This setup allows Burkey to spread out his calving times. He's currently calving twice a year, but notes with this setup, he could be calving three or four times, hitting different markets throughout the year.

Flexible system
Burkey notes his system is flexible, and he isn't locked in to any one method, but can use each component as needed. "My goal is to set up a blueprint that leaves my children something. I can leave them cattle, but if they don't have the resources needed, what do they have?" Burkey asks. "We're doing all these things with barns, cover crops — but that's not where it stops. The things that can spin off are endless. There are other businesses that could grow from this."

For example, the barns can be used for backgrounding or finishing cattle, or a replacement heifer program.

Habrock has his own vested interest in Burkey's farm. As someone who lost his farm during the 1990s, Habrock hopes Burkey's farm will serve as an example to other young producers interested in using pieces of different systems to raise cattle profitably. "Part of the legacy I've got here is Tyler's children, and hopefully, any kid that looks at this system and says, 'Dad, this is what we should do,'" says Habrock.

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ROOM TO GROW: Megan and Tyler Burkey pose with their children, Sydney, 9, and Luke, 8. Pasture acres may be limited in eastern Nebraska, but the Burkeys’ cow-calf operation located west of Milford makes use of the resources offered.

Burkey's father passed away in 2015, but he got to see the start of his son’s plans come to fruition after Burkey built his first hoop barn. "My dad saw the barn as a business, not as a farm. It's something that could generate money and have potential down the road for a long time. He was behind it 100%," Burkey says. "The hardest part about change is taking the first step. We took the first step, and we've kept running since."

Burkey and Habrock are continually fine-tuning this system. As it develops, learn more about this system and how the different components work together in upcoming Nebraska Farmer articles.

About the Author(s)

Tyler Harris

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Tyler Harris is the editor for Wallaces Farmer. He started at Farm Progress as a field editor, covering Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Before joining Farm Progress, Tyler got his feet wet covering agriculture and rural issues while attending the University of Iowa, taking any chance he could to get outside the city limits and get on to the farm. This included working for Kalona News, south of Iowa City in the town of Kalona, followed by an internship at Wallaces Farmer in Des Moines after graduation.

Coming from a farm family in southwest Iowa, Tyler is largely interested in how issues impact people at the producer level. True to the reason he started reporting, he loves getting out of town and meeting with producers on the farm, which also gives him a firsthand look at how agriculture and urban interact.

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