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Irrigation Intensive Grazing

Like many parts of western Nebraska, the area south of Madrid is peppered with green circles that have been carved out of grassland pastures with the help of center pivot irrigation.

However, Joe Vak, who manages nearly 5,000 acres in Perkins County, took a little different path when he installed three center pivot units around his farmstead back in 2006.

Instead of planting corn and soybeans, like most other farmers in the area, he planted grass and initiated a rotational grazing program. With a mix of cool- and warm-season grasses, Vak was able to graze cattle year-round under irrigation.

“My son didn’t have a desire to return to the farm, and I was already at the age when I didn’t want to make an investment in newer equipment,” Vak explains. “So cattle looked pretty good at the time. I still have 3,000 acres of dryland corn and wheat ground that I lease out. At the moment, I don’t have to manage anything but cows. The other benefit is irrigated grass doesn’t require nearly as much water.”

Switch to custom grazing
However, even that has changed somewhat in recent years. After knee-replacement surgery forced him to slow down, Vak sold his own cowherd in 2012 and started custom grazing the circles for a local producer who owns a feedlot. As a result, Vak provides the pasture and the small amount of labor it takes to check on the neighbor’s cow-calf herd and periodically move the animals from one paddock to another for a per-head fee. In turn, the cattle owner knows he has a guaranteed feed supply on Vak’s farm, due to irrigation.

At present, each pivot is divided 50-50 between grass pasture and double-cropped oats and grazing sorghum. Unless the latter is needed as pasture, which hasn’t happened yet, the oats are cut and baled in June, and each half circle is planted to forage for a second crop of feed. Both of those crops are also purchased in the field for use in the feedlot.

“When I was doing it on my own, I could run about 250 head between the circles and dryland pasture, plus another 80 head on a circle nearby,” he relates. “Today, there are about 235 head on any one pasture.”

In a typical year, Vak will start the cattle on cool-season grasses and then rotate them to warm-season grasses on the other pivots before turning them into divided paddocks on 1,600 acres of native pasture.

“Through the summer, I’ll put just enough water on the cool-season grass to maintain it,” he explains. “Then, toward the end of summer, I’ll start pouring on a little more water so that by around the middle of August, it’s ready to go again.”

One challenge with pivot irrigated grass involves fencing. Rather than lowering or moving fences (taking hours of labor) or building gates for each wheel tower (requiring a big investment), Vak uses a system built by Pivotal Fencing Systems in Yuma, Colorado.

The key components are a spring-loaded electric fence post at each pivot tower and a strong tension spring that keeps the wire tight. As the towers travel forward, the posts simply lay over, allowing the pivot to walk over the fence. As soon as the second tire clears the wire, the post pops back into position.

“I really don’t have the figures on how many pounds of beef or grass I can produce under irrigation since I don’t own the cows,” Vak says. “I do know I average around 7 tons per acre of feed. That’s in addition to grass that is only grazed once every 70 to 80 days.

“Even though I no longer own the cattle, I think rotational grazing under irrigation is still more profitable than corn right now, considering cattle prices,” he says.

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