GORDON — On a Friday morning, the Petersons of Plum Thicket Farms south of Gordon were moving weaned calves from one field of cover crops to the next.
Patrick Peterson, and his parents, Rex and Nancy, are one of eight private landowners across the state who’ve agreed to team up with the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition and the University of Nebraska Extension to embark on a three year study sponsored by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, examining the impacts and efficacy of grazing cover crops on row crop acres. The Petersons are now on the second year of the study, and a UNL graduate student has been collecting information to track potential changes in soil health characteristics over time.
“We have to recognize we may not see many significant changes over a short period of time,” NGLC Coordinator Ron Bolze said. “While this is our second year of involvement here, Patrick has done a lot of this for many years.”
In 2016, Patrick Peterson grew oats and peas on one of his side pivots as part of the study, then planted winter wheat after grazing. The winter wheat looked great until mid-July, however, hail damage leading to late harvest and reduced his yield to about 30 bushels an acre.
After harvesting the wheat this summer, Patrick sprayed for weeds, then drilled a cover crop mixture; 40 pounds of rye, 20 pounds hairy vetch, 30 pounds of forage peas, ½ pound of white wonder millet, ½ pound of forage collards and about a ½ pound of a rapeseed/kale hybrid.
Next year they’ll rotate to corn before planting the next cover crop.
Patrick said he’s stayed away from turnips for the most part out of fear of calf choke.
“It kind of depends on size of bulb you end up with,” he said. “If it’s too small, they try to swallow it whole and then it will get stuck in the esophagus, they’ll just start drooling. Then you have to use mineral oil to try and use something to push it back down into the stomach, which is really high risk and we’ve lost quite a few calves to that.”
Patrick said they have enough native rangeland to support their cow herd. Since the cover crops tend to be expensive feed compared to dormant season grass, they’ve been using the fields mostly to put pounds on calves.
“This year, we weaned on a field that was oat and peas planted after dry land wheat,” he said. “We hauled them in with a trailer, and they put their heads down and never even thought about bawling. It was super low-stress weaning.”
Readings from last year showed that that field yielded about 7,000 pounds worth of biomass, and in terms of what the cattle actually ate, it was about two AUM per acre. Since an AUM is about 700 to 800 pounds of feed per acre, they ate about 1/3 of it.
Patrick takes care of most of the farming, while the cattle side of the operation is his parent’s passion.
“I certainly think there’s a place for grazing pairs when the pastures are no longer any good and you’re not ready to wean, going onto a mob grazing pairs is beneficial,” Nancy said. “This time of year, the cows need to be out and picking dry stuff in the pastures.”
When mob grazing, the Petersons will move pairs every 24 hours on the first go, and the second go-round they will move them twice a day. They’ve seen success with grazing dry-land grazing sorghum.
“We had 214 pairs plus bulls on about seven acres,” Nancy said. “I think mob grazing on sorghum has the most potential of anything we’ve ever tried.”
Nancy said it has not been a great year for trying to grow anything. Planting was late because of the weather, and then it didn’t rain from June 10 to July 8.
“I got 3.6 AUM per acre on one side, and 3.2 off the other,” she said. “If we can plant by the first of June, and start grazing on either the 10th or 15th of July, I think we can go through them at least three times. I think it’s entirely possible to get 4 AUMs if there’s any moisture at all.”
The mob grazing has been somewhat vital to conserving their native grassland pastures.
“We had a really bad drought here last year, and we only got about 13 inches of rain,” Nancy said. “Our pastures didn’t look very well at all. My goal was to stay out of as much native pasture as I could during the growing season this year.”
She put 100 head of heifers on about 450 acres from 16 June to 10 July, and only took about 3/10 of an AUM off.
“Those pastures looked like hell,” she said. “I was ashamed that I managed them, because it was so dry when they were on them and they were hurt until last year.”
The mob grazing has allowed her to spare grazing and heal some of her pastures.
The work Rex and Nancy Peterson have done earned them the 2016 Leopold Conservation Award, and also the Beef Improvement Federation’s commercial producer of the year award, which Nancy humbly said is mostly based on record keeping.