Grazing cover crops 101

If you’re looking for ways to make cover crops pay for themselves, grazing is one way to do it. Unfortunately, livestock left many farms years ago, leaving today’s soil health practitioners with little instinct on how to become graziers. 

Jacob Miller, however, has answers. 

Jacob and his father, John, operate a ranch near Culbertson, Nebraska. In the past decade, they shifted the operation from a diversified crop and livestock farm to one that now deploys only high stock density grazing 365 days a year, using no harvested feed. They move 300 cows daily on the 7,000-acre western Nebraska operation to capitalize on fresh grass; 600 acres of cover crops fill in the gaps. The result? Dramatically improved soil and a more profitable operation.

The Right Tools

“When we first started, we bought very cheap equipment. That was a big mistake,” Jacob Miller says. 

That changed in 2015, when Miller started Live Wire LLC to help producers develop rotational grazing systems. A key in making rotational grazing work is a high-quality electric fence charger.

“My first year home from college I bought a few farm store chargers,” Miller says. “I paid good money and had limited success.” The chargers broke down frequently, and their charge wasn’t big enough to contain cattle. After trying several brands, he settled on the Cyclops series of fence chargers, made in Alabama to be robust and dependable enough for his needs. He now sells the Cyclops charger through the business he developed with his wife, Cassie. The couple has a daughter, Cora. 

Jacob Miller and his family in a green pasture
Photo credit: Jacob Miller

His most popular model, the Stallion DC packs 2.5 joules, about five times the energy the farm supply store models have. Joules are a measurement of the energy a charger can produce. At minimum, 1 joule per mile of fence is recommended. 

Noting the success of his charger, he posted a photo on Facebook, which sparked interest from other graziers. The business took off from there. These days, his Cyclops lineup includes five 12-volt models from 12 joules to 1.5 joules. It also features eight solar-powered versions and seven DC models. His firm builds aluminum stands for the lineup, to ensure easy use in the field. He also has parts inventory on hand to quickly rebuild the chargers.

“We sell a product that is serviceable. It’s an investment, not a throwaway product,” he says.

Live Wire offers a host of fence materials specifically designed for rotational grazing. All the products – posts, poly wire, reels, latches, and accessories – are proven on his farm. 

Set Yourself Up

After grazing for seven years, Miller has learned about tools to establish a cover crop grazing system. Tools to make erecting and removing electric fence much more efficient include:

  • Ring-top posts. Miller recommends Gallagher’s ring-top fence post, which has a foot peg for easy insertion and a fiberglass base to prevent electric shorts. “The Gallagher uses a small-diameter shaft so it goes in the ground easier,” he says. “The foot peg is polymer.” Expect to pay about $4 per post. He uses 33 posts in a quarter-mile run, or one every 40 feet. On flat ground, use a post every 70 feet. That requires 20 per quarter-mile. 
  • Permanent posts. For permanent cross fences on native grass, Miller uses the SunGuard II fiberglass step-in post. At 5 feet long and 1/2 inch in diameter, they are durable and feature a stainless-steel clip that holds the wire. They cost about $2.50 each, but are an advantage over steel because they don’t short out. 
  • Poly wire. A replacement for galvanized wire typically used in electric fence, poly wire is more durable, lighter, and flexible. “The biggest thing with poly wire is to buy poly braid, rather than twisted three-strand,” he says. “Braid doesn’t fray; it’s much more durable.” Miller recommends Powerflex PolyBraid. The strand size depends on your application. Nine-strand braid (a mix of copper and steel) is recommended for quarter-mile stretches. Six-strand can be used, but strength and durability are compromised, Miller says. Expect to pay about $50 per quarter-mile run.  
  • Poly wire reel. A reel with handle will make life much easier when it comes to rolling and unrolling poly wire, he says. Make sure to use a geared model, as durability is greatly improved. The Gallagher geared medium reel is about $70.
  • Batt-latch. This solar-powered gate opener combines a timer with a spring gate to open automatically. Cattle quickly become trained to moving when the gate opens, Miller says. “You can set two or three fences up ahead of time so the cattle move when you want them to. When you get busy, it’s nice to know that you only have to build fence a couple of days per week,” he says. At $450, this is a pricey item, “but if we’re being honest, you can’t buy labor for that.” 

Roots and Water

Water is the most limiting factor in rotational grazing, Miller says. Hauling water is inefficient, so he arranges grazing paddocks so animals have a permanent water supply available. Cover crop pastures likely won’t have permanent water sources, so Miller recommends setting up mobile water tanks or creating lanes that allow livestock to travel to a water tank. 

In cover crops, a back fence will be necessary to keep livestock from eating lush, fresh growth. 

Often, graziers say, they will circle back to the regrowth on their second rotation through a field. A caveat: It’s tempting to graze the cover crop to bare soil, but to improve soil health, “graze half and leave half,” says Paul Jasa, Extension engineer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As
cattle graze plants, root exudates feed the soil. Excessive grazing can diminish root activity.

Grazing Fresh Cattle

Turning out a load of weaned calves from the sale barn into cover crops is an easy way to start the cover crop grazing business. Be aware, it may be costly because cover crop grazing can negatively affect animal health, Miller explains. 

“In 2018, we had foot rot go through steers and I doctored 40% of the herd. We were grazing tall sorghum sudan, which was hot and humid,” he says. “It was a wreck.” 

If possible, have an open loafing area to let animals spread out. “That seems to make a big difference, and doesn’t crowd wilder calves,” he says. 

Make sure the fence is hot so these calves will respect the fence. Often, fence chargers aren’t grounded correctly because folks use a metal fence post rather than a proper 8-foot grounding rod. “That takes away about half the charger power and animals are getting tickled rather than shocked,” he explains.  

Finally, move cattle frequently. “We try to stick with daily moves. If you move weekly, they eat pretty good the first few days, then it’s OK, and the last few days there’s not much nutrition,” he says.  

“It takes management to do it right,” Miller adds, “but I don’t see how guys can afford not to graze this way.” 

For more information, check Live Wire LLC on Facebook, or call 308/350-0034. 

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