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Get growing – low-cost grazing strategies

Joann Pipkin Published on 01 May 2011
Steve Squibb's water tank made from implement tire

In a day and time when farm inputs are on the rise, getting the most from your pastures could very well start with checking what you already have on hand.

“Too many times it’s human nature for us to look for that one silver bullet we can buy that will cure everything,” explains Mark Green, district conservationist with Natural Resources Conservation Service, based in Springfield, Missouri.

“I think we need to back up – look at our pastures, our existing fences, our existing water and take a hard look at our management style and see if we can make some adjustments,” he added.

By implementing low-cost grazing strategies, Green and University of Missouri Extension farm business management specialist Wesley Tucker are helping farmers put their pastures to work for them.

Fencing

“You don’t have to start off with 12 paddocks and a tremendous investment to make rotational grazing work,” Tucker noted.

“A single roll of polywire that can be moved around from field to field will allow you to start seeing the benefits of rotational grazing.”

And the number one benefit farmers will see by dividing pastures is better grass utilization. “When cattle are put into a continuous grazing system, a lot of the grass that grows never goes through the cow,”

Tucker says. “It grows, becomes overmature and then dies back. The cows never actually use it.”

Effective grazing doesn’t have to break the bank, Tucker and Green insist. The whole idea behind low-cost grazing, they say, is managing the forage you already grow so that more of it goes through the cow.

“You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make this work, you just have to spend a little time managing what you already have,” Tucker says.

“Basically, all you need is a fence charger – either electric, battery-powered or solar – some polywire and some step-in posts,” he continues.

“In southwest Missouri, we spend tremendous amounts of money each year to grow grass that we never utilize,” Tucker notes, “and that hurts us a lot on profitability.”

The most expensive part of trying to improve a grazing set-up is structural, Green points out. Fence and water costs can add up. “Good electric fence is going to be cheaper because you can get by with one strand almost always,” he says.

Squibb checking the float on water tank

Water

Once pastures are divided, installing water is the next hurdle. Tucker says in southern Missouri a few permanent freeze-proof waterers for the dead of winter are all that is necessary.

For nine to 10 months out of the year, you can get by with portable water tanks and above-ground pipes.

Tucker himself rents land for his cattle operation and this has proven to be a low-cost strategy allowing him to break up larger fields into smaller ones without breaking his pocketbook.

“With portable water, I don’t have near as much invested as I would in a permanent set-up and if I decide I want to move it, I can,” he explains.

Yet, if a permanent water source is needed in a pasture, Green says a great low-cost alternative is tanks made from heavy implement tires.

Springfield cattleman Steve Squibb has installed four tire tanks on 200 acres that he’s divided.

Squibb says right now cost is the main advantage to the tire tanks for permanent water over concrete or other freeze-proof set-ups.

And he notes that more animals can gather around the tank to drink at a time compared to the concrete tanks.

Once he has the tire, Squibb says the tank can be set up in less than an hour.

Using an existing well, Squibb ran water lines underground to each of the four tanks. To set up the tank, he placed the tire on top of the line, installed the plumbing and poured a fast-acting concrete inside the tank, making it level with the bottom bead of the tire.

Almost immediately, Squibb says, he filled the tank with water. “The concrete cures underwater and the weight of the water helps push the tire down inside the concrete,” Squibb explains.

The black tires do soak up natural heat from the sun, which acts as an insulator to help keep the water from freezing.

During extreme cold, Squibb says he opens a valve he installed inside the tank that keeps water moving through an overflow pipe, which carries it outside the tank.

The most limiting factor right now, Squibb says, may very well be the availability of the tires. He was fortunate to locate his at no cost from a nearby quarry.

Tucker adds that installing a valve and overflow pipe in the tire tanks are critical to keeping water circulated in cold weather and preventing freezing.

Soil fertility

Low-cost grazing need not stop with fencing and water, Green says. Fertility management is also critical to getting the most from your grass.

“We’ve been spoiled for years with cheap fertilizer,” he says. “It’s not there any more. Number one, pull a soil sample for testing. Otherwise, you are just guessing at what nutrients your soil needs.”

Green also recommends farmers take a hard look at when they apply their fertilizer.

“We can save a lot of money just by timing of our fertilizer,” he says, adding that the key is to utilize as much pasture as you can by letting the animal graze it.

While low-cost strategies for grazing is the name of the game, Green is quick to point out there are some components you don’t want to skimp on.

“Get a good quality charger capable of handling the task at hand plus a little more,” Green suggests. “And install a quality grounding system.”

Visit with other producers and look at their systems, he adds. “You can always learn from what others have done.”

“Inventory your resources,” Green sums up. “Sometimes we really need to back up and take a hard look at how we’re managing. Don’t do something just because that’s the way it’s always been done.”  end_mark

PHOTOS

TOP: Steve Squibb, Springfield, Missouri, has installed four water tanks made from heavy implement tires on 200 acres where he backgrounds steers. While not freeze-proof, the black tires soak up natural heat from the sun to help prevent freezing in cold weather. Squibb says they also allow more cattle to drink at a time compared to concrete waterers.

BOTTOM: Missouri cattleman Steve Squibb checks the float on a water tank he made from a heavy implement tire. Installing tanks like this one are a way farmers can cut costs in rotational grazing set-ups, as the tires are often free.  Photos by Show-Me Agri Comm.

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