Teri Edeal says she and her family turned some heads last summer when they converted 160 acres of newly bought irrigated corn and soybean ground into rotationally grazed pasture. But the Edeals, who expect to net $120/acre from custom grazing this year, know they did the right thing.
"I think more people are beginning to recognize the growing demand for pastureland and the reduced risk it can offer over constant fluctuations in commodity prices," says Teri.
The Edeals - Teri and her husband, Brian; sons Trent and Travis; and Travis' wife, Nikki - farm over 2,000 acres near Overton, NE. Teri also is a resource conservationist specializing in pasture and rangeland for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The family is grazing stockers on the irrigated pasture this year. They began renovating the 160-acre parcel shortly after buying it last year. Late last summer, they disked the ground twice, packed it and then seeded 80 pure live seeds per square foot with a no-till drill.
Three-fourths of the seed was a combination of five grasses - creeping foxtail, intermediate wheatgrass, tall wheatgrass, Russian wildrye and orchardgrass. The final fourth was dedicated to two legumes - birdsfoot trefoil and alsike clover. To date, the Edeals have made three 40-lb/acre nitrogen applications.
The family carefully selected the species they seeded to complement one another. For example, creeping foxtail matures around May 1. Wheatgrass matures next, followed by orchardgrass and timothy. Selecting grasses and legumes that mature at different rates makes the forage supply more consistent throughout the grazing season, Teri explains.
"If you manage the grass, the cattle will take care of themselves," she says.
The pasture's divided into 14 paddocks ranging from 8.5 acres to 17 acres. Cattle are moved to a fresh paddock every 12 to 36 hours, with cattle grazing on the smaller paddocks for shorter periods. Each paddock is grazed approximately once every 14 days.
After the cattle have been moved out of a paddock, 220 ewes are moved in to graze leftovers and provide low-cost weed control. A llama, borrowed from a friend, grazes with the ewes for predator control.
"Initially, we wanted to custom-graze the ewes simply for weed control," says Travis, who charges $3/ewe/month. "But we'll pay the taxes on the land this year with what we make from the sheep."
From May to mid-June, the Edeals applied 6.6" of water from their center-pivot irrigation system. Since then, they've irrigated less because rainfall has been more plentiful.
With assistance from the University of Nebraska Weather Center in Smithville, they calculated the evapotranspiration rate of the forages. "Every day they're taking about one-third of an inch of water out of the soil that we need to replenish," says Teri.
Adds Travis: "The water needs of the pasture are similar to alfalfa. If you need 4" of water to grow a ton of alfalfa, then you need that much to grow the same amount of grass on a dry matter basis, especially if subsoils are depleted."
The Edeals will custom graze two groups of stockers this year. Each group of about 500 head arrives weighing 500-550 lbs each and leaves around 90 days later. The animals gain an average of almost 1.5 to 2 lbs/head/day and are returned to the owner when the average weight reaches 700 lbs. The Edeals charge 35cents per pound of gain and are paid monthly. Next year the Edeals plan to increase the number of stockers to 1,500.
"I bill monthly for 1 lb of gain per day per animal and make up the balance when the cattle are shipped," says Travis. "It's nice to have cash flow, which covers irrigation expenses, fertilizer costs, labor, etc., along the way."
He says the family doesn't have trouble finding cattle to custom graze.
"After we were set up this year with one customer, who has a 10,000-head feedlot in a nearby town, we got eight more calls from potential customers," says Travis. "We have immediate access to more cattle as we need them."