Much as we recognize the modern system of confined cattle feeding has vastly improved the industry’s ability to monitor animal performance, improve efficiency of diets and track and treat health issues, any honest appraisal of the system has to grant there’s, at best, a love/hate relationship with feedlots. For all the production benefits, they also bring their share of concentrated manure, potential runoff and the health problems that come naturally with high stocking density, dust and mud.
Reporting at late July's annual meeting of the American Society of Agriculture and Biological Engineers in Kansas City, University of Nebraska ag engineer Jason Goss and Arkansas professor Chris Henry detailed a system they believe may finally prove capable of practically feeding cattle without the feedlot. They believe their system could make intensive open grazing a practical solution to some of those health, production and environmental disadvantages of confined open feedlots—not to mention skirting the ever-present eye of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by maintaining a grazing operation—without sacrificing the productivity that intensive grazing usually brings with it.
The duo's workable alternative to feedlot production is based on a more manageable and controllable intensive grazing setup that takes advantage of the crop-irrigation pivots common throughout the Plains. The project started when a producer approached them in 2010 looking for alternatives to cut some of the high-cost baling, stacking, transporting, grinding and feeding requirements of confined cattle finishing. Taking note that past research has demonstrated intensive grazing—when managed tightly—can in fact rival the confined feedlot when it comes to controlling dietary intake to maintain desired production, monitoring animal health, reducing feed waste and reducing labor, they set out to try to overcome the one “seemingly insurmountable restriction” such intensive grazing requires: the challenge of eating up an estimated two hours per day moving electric-fence posts, particularly in frozen ground.
Their study, focused on fall/winter grazing of newly weaned spring born calves in the semi-arid region of western Nebraska, used a device developed by the authors that attaches to a center pivot and uniformly suspends an electric fence under the pivot system. This “Pivot Fence,” which they have applied for a patent on, gives the producer a portable 1,300-foot cross fence that can be easily moved by either the center pivot’s control panel or a computer or smart phone. The vertical post that hangs from the pivot uses an arm mechanism attached to the truss rods which stabilizes the height of the wire while insulating it from the rest of the pivot. The mechanism is adjustable to accommodate different topographies in a pasture, allowing the ability to maintain the proper wire height on rough crop fields.
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