Grazing conference focuses on water placement, fencing and opportunist plants |

Grazing conference focuses on water placement, fencing and opportunist plants

Teresa Clark
for The Fence Post
Callaway, Neb., rancher Jim Jenkins talks about managing risk and taking advantage of opportunities.
Photo by Teresa Clark |

Next conference

A two-day Nebraska grazing conference is scheduled for Aug 7-8, 2018, at the Ramada Inn in Kearney, Neb.

Producers spent two days at the Nebraska Grazing conference sharing new ideas and management schemes.

The hot topics at the conference, held in Kearney, Neb., focused on proper fence placing and water points in a grazing system. One of this year’s keynote speakers, Jim Gerrish, who lives in the Pahsimeroi Valley in central Idaho, told producers proper placement of water sources and fences are key to properly manage grazing land.

“Grazing revolves around water,” Gerrish said. “It is the single most important factor affecting where cattle will spend their time. Because of that, it will have the most grazing impact. When we put in water sources, we are taking control of the landscape.”

Gerrish found it was more cost effective to take water to the animals.

“It allows the producer to take control of the herd, and the impact they will create,” he said. “That’s why I’m a big fan of pipeline systems.”

When he develops water sources and puts new fences in a grazing cell, Gerrish said he will refer to them as fixed or flexible designs.

“A fixed design is built using primarily permanent fence and water installations to create the grazing cell,” Gerrish said. “A flexible design relies on movable fence and water for paddock subdivisions, within a framework of permanent fence and water installation.”

Flexible fencing designs are becoming more popular in areas of Nebraska where producers are looking for better ways to utilize annual forages, cover crops and crop residue. Gerrish said flexible designs allow producers to fine-tune their pasture-animal balance, especially if they need tighter management control. He said fixed designs are more suitable for larger operations where paddocks are big enough that the cost can be spread over several acres.

“Sometimes, it costs just as much to fence a small paddock as a large one,” he told producers. “Especially, when you take into account the number of corner braces and gates that have to be put into both.”

opportunist plants

Chris Helzer, director of the Science for Nebraska program with The Nature Conservancy, told producers what can happen to plants above and below ground when they graze areas with livestock.

With light to moderate defoliation, livestock can take some of the leaves off grasses.

“It doesn’t have a huge impact on the root system, which is what happens if you have a rotational grazing system where you move livestock through it quickly,” Helzer said. “The idea is to leave those grasses with enough resources so they can heal and grow back quickly.”

He cautioned producers about intensive defoliation. Over a long period of time, it can cause changes above and below ground.

“After running some numbers this year, by far the largest number of pollinator plants we saw were in areas that were grazed hard the previous year,” he said. “Above ground, the soil now has light hitting its surface because the plant canopy is smaller. When the plant becomes defoliated and can’t photosynthesize, it basically shuts down the root system.”

When this happens, Helzer said some opportunistic plants will take advantage of grass weakness.

“As managers, we worry about these plants that compete with our grasses. We worry they will reduce forage and cause problems. Some of these plants will only push in when the grass is weak, but they don’t push the grass out,” he said.

Opportunists are not typically preferred by livestock but make great habitat for wildlife.

“Insects, like amphibians and reptiles, have to thermo-regulate their temperature,” he said. “In a system where grasses are short and have tall wildflowers or weeds standing above them, it’s like walking in a park with short grass and tall trees. You can very quickly find a shady spot where you can manage your temperature, which is very important for insects. That includes grasshoppers and stink bugs, as well as the predators that help control them.”

Bees also like opportunist plants, such as annual sunflowers, to reproduce. Sunflowers produce a sweet, syrupy substance that appeals to the bees. Sunflowers are one of the best and most nutritional feeds for wildlife, Helzer said, which is why it’s an ingredient in bird seed mixtures.

Be open-minded

One young producer asked long-time producers Jim Jenkins and John Maddux about land financing to get started in the livestock business. Jenkins and Maddux both said they’d seek out opportunities and lease a lot of land for their cattle operations, rather than buying it. Maddux said profitability will be better for a young producer leasing land because they don’t have all their money tied up in capital, which allows them to invest more in the livestock.

Both men said there are opportunities to lease or rent pasture, but in many situations, it requires thinking outside the box and finding the opportunities when they present themselves. It may also require some hard work. Jenkins told producers of a rancher he knows who made a nice living leasing all his land. “The only land he owns is what his house sits on,” he said.

Both men encouraged young producers to watch for any opportunity out there and to carefully consider it before letting it go.

“Even on our own operations there are probably opportunities we haven’t seen yet,” Jenkins said. “What’s important is recognizing an opportunity that is there, and finding ways to capitalize on that.”

Other subjects covered at the conference were diet and health, grassland vegetation and plant cover for wildlife, grass selection for irrigated and dryland conditions, determining the cost of production, managing risk and cost-share programs for improvements.

Plum Thicket Farms was recognized as the 2016 Nebraska Leopold winner, and there was a short presentation about the operation.❖

— Teresa Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at