In one of Scott David’s fields south of Tampa, just part of his 60 acres, he planted harry vetch, Sudan grass, oats, turnips, and radishes. He plans to feed his crops to his cattle all winter.
The round purple heads of turnips, next to the slender white stalks of radishes, surrounded by the slim green wisps of oats, and the spiraling light green leaves of harry vetch are all growing together, leaving few paths for walking.
With most of the growing complete, David will split the field into large windrow sections his 80 cattle will slowly eat throughout the late fall and winter.
Some years David and Kelly Novak, neighbors who share the same techniques, can graze their cattle all year long. Novak said the development of turnips and radishes is halted with temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The two Tampa cattlemen can graze their cattle, even during the worst winter, through February.
“I would say it saves about 50 percent,” Novak said. “It takes $8 to $10 to bale each bale of hay. They eat about 25 pounds a day. It costs a buck a head a day. With windrow, it costs $.60 a day.”
Most ranchers graze their cattle throughout the fall on grasses or the stalks in their harvested fields. Then the cattle are relegated to a corral where they are fed hay throughout the winter. Operating smaller cattle operations, David and Novak searched for ways to reduce costs. They adopted the planting of durable feed — turnips, radishes, and Sudan grass — from ranchers in the Dakotas; they read about the practices from different publications. It allows them to extend the grazing season.
“Kelly is just very progressive,” Kansas State Research and Extension Office agent Ricky Roberts said. “He explores every option that is available. It’s easy to say, this is the way dad did it. When you’re not the biggest, you need to be creative to be competitive.”
Novak created the Flint Hills Grazers group with David, Terry Sheehan, Rick Hanschu, Jack Riggan, Bob Greenwood, John Betts, and Tom Exalson in 1991. The group’s purpose is to bounce ideas off one another about ways to extend their grazing season and improve their cattle.
“We’re not competitive against each other,” David said.
“I don’t want to see a neighbor leave,” Novak said of David.
One of the innovations Novak and the other grazers have incorporated is the windrow concept. Instead of unleashing their cattle on a virgin field and allowing them to choose what they will eat, Novak and David enclose a part of the field with electrified twine.
The shock is not dangerous to the animals, which weigh about a ton each. The line Novak uses delivers about 3 kHz of electricity; Novak said he shocked himself with a 13 kHz line that stung, but was in no way life threatening. The cows inquisitively test the line with their noses, register the shock as uncomfortable, and respect the line. Novak said that even when the line is off, the cattle will heed the boundary for a day or two. When the line is activated, he said they sense the electricity and stay away.
The fencing forces the cattle to clean a field. Novak said cows have a tendency to eat the fresh leaves of a plant that is trying to replace foliage from previous feedings.
“They go to what they like first. This way they clean it all up,” Novak said. “They eat their peas with their potatoes.”
The combination of windrow grazing and diverse planting improves the quality of soil. Radishes and turnips provide a different set of nutrients and cattle spread manure themselves while grazing. Among myriad growing plants, corn stalks add to the green in David’s field. When he is ready to plant corn again, the soil will be rich in preparation for its arrival.
“They’re doing the ground good,” Novak said.
While cost was the driving force behind the implementation of windrow grazing and planting different feed, the fitness of the cattle has been a side benefit.
“When they can get out and walk around the are a lot healthier. It increases blood flow,” Novak said. “You see that they’re eating and how satisfied they are. It makes their heart beat faster. It’s higher nutrients; calves can use a little higher protein energy because they’re still growing. It takes the infection load off the corrals when they’re calving.
“It lowers stress for not only them but for me too,” Novak continued. “Happy cows aren’t only in California.”
Novak and David agreed that constantly moving their cattle from the corral to windrows has increased the comfort of the cattle with their owners.
“The more you’re with them the more relaxed they are,” Novak said. “They’ll do what you want them to do. They’ll follow you.”
There are inevitably downsides with windrow grazing and planting different feed. Novak and David are constantly planting during the growing season and work harder during the winter to march the cattle from their pen to the field.
“I don’t mind planting,” Novak said. “When you have growing degree days, you might as well have something growing.”
The other risk of innovation is failure. Novak and David said they are often the first people in the grazer’s group to try something new.
“Not everything we’ve tried has always worked,” David said.
“I’ll screw up once a year,” Novak said. “You can always learn something. I don’t want to do one thing all the time.”
While Novak and David have put a lot of care and work into their herd, the results have been striking.
In the past few years, Novak said his herd has increased by at least a third. David said his herd has doubled in size.
“I attribute it to double cropping, focusing on grazing, and being willing to think outside of the box and try new things,” David said.