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Designing a grazing system with a feedlot in mind

Tyler Burkey's grazing system uses cool- and warm-season annual forages, as well as perennial pasture, to optimize flexibility and provide a balanced diet for cattle.

Tyler Harris

May 30, 2017

7 Slides

By traditional definitions, southeast Nebraska may not be what most people think of when they think of "cow country." However, Tyler Burkey notes the same climate, groundwater and productive soils that make the eastern part of the state so efficient at raising corn and soybeans also make it well-suited to raising high-quality forages for cow-calf pairs.

"In the eastern side of the state, we have soils, groundwater; we have enough rainfall that I know our potential to raise a lot of forages is huge," says Burkey, who raises pairs using a combination of annual and perennial pasture, as well as hoop buildings on his farm near Milford.

Much like the hoop buildings on his farm, the grazing system is set up for flexibility. EJ Habrock, territory manager of product development at K-Line Irrigation who is working with Burkey on designing his cow-calf system, notes the grazing system is set up similar to a feedlot.

"With a feedlot you design it so it's easy to get feed to the cattle," says Habrock. "We're making it easy for the cattle to get to the feed. We have it set up with alleyways, so we can control the livestock. We can get them in if we need to. We can move them to where there are better forages without having to chase them."

It starts with fence
The paddocks are designed around alleyways 25 feet wide that allow cattle to move from any paddock back to the barns for AI, preg-checking, vaccination, calving or anything else. Burkey's system is built around a strong fencing system in the outer perimeter and alleys — usually three-strand wire, with single-strand cross fences to divide paddocks — whether it's cover crops or perennial pasture.

"In reality, the infrastructure is not that expensive. There's money involved, but it's not as expensive compared to building a feedlot and having the machinery investment required," says Jason Gross, University of Nebraska Extension engineering technician who's helping Burkey design his grazing system. "It's really about where you want to put your time. We can add to it or take away from it with additional permanent fencing or cross fencing."

Gross notes managing grazing takes two components: What's available in harvestability to the animal and how much is left behind after. And those components are managed with control.

"After you graze forage, if you've got fast regrowth, it's going to come back. But animal behavior would suggest they will keep going for the fresh regrowth instead of mature growth. We have to be able to shut them off and let the plant heal itself and go back into rapid regrowth. The best way to control is with fence," Gross says. "But with cows and calves, we want to keep them on a consistent diet, just like we do in a feedlot. We're basically trying to mimic feedlot performance in a grazing opportunity. Instead of a TMR mixer, we're doing it through rotational grazing, fencing and portable waterers."

Controlling animal traffic
It starts with cereal rye, which is drilled after corn or soybean harvest, and is grazed in late winter or early spring. However, with enough rest after being grazed the first time, rye can provide enough regrowth to be grazed again. Oats and forage peas, planted this March, will be ready to graze after the rye heads out.

Burkey is also using the Pivot Fence — a portable fence attached to a center pivot, invented by Jason Gross in 2011 – as a lead fence on his cool-season cover crop acres. Burkey is following the Pivot Fence with a tail fence that's moved about every three days to keep cattle from coming back to fresh regrowth.

In most fields, corn will be planted into standing cereal rye for harvest later. However, for a quarter of his farm, warm seasons like pearl millet and teff will be drilled into rye for year-round grazing.

With center pivots on the property, irrigation helps establish warm-season cover crops after a paddock has been grazed. "We're grazing the pivot in quarters. We can irrigate three-quarters of the field, but not where we're grazing cover crops. When we move the cows, we go in and seed and irrigate," Habrock says. "The most effective time to irrigate is right after you graze."

Using portable water tanks, Burkey can also shift animal traffic in different parts of a paddock to avoid creating a mud hole in one corner of the pasture.

A quarter of perennial cool-season pasture, which includes nontoxic endophyte fescue, orchardgrass and brome, will be used for stockpiling to graze when cover crops aren't available, and to give a chance to establish cover crops. Dividing up the 120 acres of perennial pasture into 15 grazing cells, Burkey can support 250 head of cattle for 45 days before returning to the first grazing cell. Using K-Line surface irrigation, they can irrigate specific grazing cells in perennial pasture based on the grazing pattern.

Well-balanced diet
The goal, Burkey says, is to keep cows and calves on a steady, consistent plane of nutrition throughout the year. That's especially helpful with a spring-calving herd and a fall-calving herd.

"If we're grazing cows and calves, you want them to have higher-quality feed," he says. "We're running two groups. We're running cows and calves on a parcel of ground. We'll leave them there 24 to 36 hours; then we'll move them. And within a day or two, we might put fall cows out to clean everything up, because fall cows might not need the most high-quality feed. The rye is going to head out eventually, and the cows and calves can move on to oats and peas. Peas are going to add more protein."

While Burkey doesn't plan to graze any one cell more than 24 to 36 hours, he notes a big part of the equation is closely monitoring cattle behavior and health, as well as Mother Nature and pasture regrowth, and responding. "Everybody wants an exact answer, but it's just not there," Burkey says. "The exact answer is pay attention to your livestock. Pay attention to what's going on around them. They will tell you everything you need to know."

Editor's note: This article is the latest in a series of articles outlining the cow-calf system on Tyler Burkey's farm near Milford. For additional articles, see past issues of Nebraska Farmer and visit NebraskaFarmer.com.

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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