In a not-so-unusual move, Ken and Lucia Udlinek, of Moses Lake, WA, plan to expand their grazing operation by renting land for pasture next winter.

What is unusual is that they won't own the cattle - and that the grazing will be on land used to grow row crops half the year.

The cattle will be grazed under contract for Oregon Country Beef, an eastern Oregon marketing cooperative. Its members produce beef without hormones or antibiotics, aiming for premium prices from the health-food market.

The rugged eastern Oregon rangeland is great for cows, but calf growth weights after weaning are nothing to shout about. On the other hand, plenty of fertile, irrigated farmland lies just to the north in Washington's Columbia Basin. And most of that land is idle for several months every year.

Under the plan, the Udlineks will graze Oregon calves on triticale in fall and winter, renting land from row-crop farmers for that purpose. Those farmers will seed the triticale in August after removing an early crop such as early potatoes or wheat. Grazing will run roughly from October through March, with a stocking rate of one calf per acre or 120 per center-pivot circle.

The farmers will be responsible for working the land and seeding the triticale. They also will irrigate the crop to get it established. But the Udlineks will handle everything else - daily cattle rotations, fencing, etc. They'll even plow snow from the paddocks, if necessary.

The grazing contracts and leases will facilitate a major expansion of the Udlinek's pasture enterprise, which so far has been limited to summer grazing on their own 55 acres of grass. For the row croppers, it's a chance to earn an extra $10,000 per circle without disrupting their normal cropping practices. And to members of the Oregon co-op, shipping cattle to Washington pastures seems preferable to long-term feedlot grow-outs.

"It's a win-win-win situation," says Ken Udlinek.

The timing is good for row-crop farmers, because they're under pressure to use more ecologically sound cropping methods. The water in nearly one-third of Columbia Basin wells has nitrate levels that exceed EPA standards. Farmers are being advised on ways to prevent nitrate leaching, especially with potatoes, which are fertilized with up to 400 lbs/acre of nitrogen.

Cover crops are recommended as one way to alleviate the nitrate problem. And triticale is well-suited to the task, producing high-quality forage while soaking up large amounts of nitrogen.

In a pilot program, rancher Duane Roecks, Royal City, WA, grazed 48 Oregon calves on triticale for six months earlier this year. He logged gains of up to 3 lbs/calf/day in early spring, averaging 2-2 1/2 lbs/day for the entire grazing period. The animals averaged 450 lbs when he got them. They left weighing 820 lbs, heading to a custom feedlot for finishing.

Roecks came up with the contract grazing idea while visiting with Liz Turner, an Oregon Country Beef member. He's currently helping the Udlineks work out rental agreements with area row-crop farmers. The Udlineks have contracted with individual co-op members to graze 600 calves next winter.

"It was tempting to take on more," says Udlinek. "But it's really important to us that the farmers who rent us fields are happy. We want the farmers to want us back."

Turner, who ranches with her husband, Mark, near The Dalles, OR, says co-op members like the rotational grazing concept.

"It fits in with the land ethic that's very important to our customers," she says.

"At the store level, our customers are interested in supporting sustainable land management practices."