Mark Keck had a few neighbors wondering about his business savvy when he bought a 160-acre parcel of land coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) two years ago.
With corn prices riding along at fairly high levels, conventional wisdom held that the best use of most former CRP ground was to put it under the plow and get it back into production a.s.a.p.
But Keck, of Crofton, NE, had different plans for the property - setting up an intensive rotational grazing (IRG) system for his 200-cow beef herd. Now that grain prices have tanked, he's looking like a pretty smart fellow.
"We have enough farming as it is," says Keck, who row crops about 400 acres. "We wanted to see if we could get better production off this long term with grass."
The fact that the parcel is close to the home farm had a lot to do with Keck's decision. With several groves of trees, the property gave him a good spot for calving.
"It also gave us a chance to try a more intensive management system. We'd already seen the value of rotational grazing on another pasture we have. But that's 20 miles away from home. It just wasn't practical to arrange for shorter rotations there."
Getting the CRP land prepped for the new grazing system turned out to be more complicated than Keck anticipated.
"We wanted to get right in there with the cross fences and water. But the land had been in CRP for 12 years. The perimeter fences were in pretty sorry shape, so we had to tackle them first. We also had to pull the well and rebuild the pump. It was like starting from scratch."
With the preliminary work out of the way, Keck set about cross-fencing the property into six paddocks. These range in size from just a few acres to 42 acres. For water, he installed nearly 2,000' of 2" pipe and three hydrants.
Managing this kind of grazing system is a blend of art and science, says Keck. Last year, he kept a herd of 50 cow-calf pairs in the system. Early in the season, he was moving cattle through the paddocks every three or four days. His goal: fully utilize early season grasses like cheat grass, bromegrass and bluegrass.
"The early grasses mature quickly," he points out. "Once they head out, the cattle don't care to eat them. By catching them at the right stage, when they're palatable, you can give the native grasses - big bluestem and Indiangrass - a chance to rest."
Early wet weather presented a challenge last year. "With all the rain, everything was growing so fast," he says. "We usually like to take the grass down to 4-6" in height to leave good regrowth. But the switchgrass (which became dominant during CRP) was getting ahead of us. You have to keep looking ahead to see what other paddocks are doing, too. If one is getting away from you, you have to try to move the cattle a little quicker."
As the season progresses, the rotation slows down. Cattle are moved every seven to 30 days depending on size of the paddock. "In the short time we've been in this system, we've seen that we can get a little better distribution of the warm-season grasses by giving them a rest for 30-40 days."
Keck's next step will be fine-tuning what he's already put in place. He'd like to add a fourth leg to the watering system and two more cross fences to reduce paddock size.
"If we can get that done, we'll be able to spread the grazing out a little more and do a better job of management," he says.