Description

John Bradley’s ranch in Douglas County prioritizes water quality, time management, and animal health. A veterinarian by trade, the system revolves around one day off per week with one person’s labor. Beginning with a focus on water quality, Bradley installed feeding pads and watering sites that preserved the streams and ponds on the 300 acres of cool season grass in northeast Kansas. Stockpiling grass for winter grazing, utilizing solar chargers for fencing, and frost-proof watering tanks reduce the amount of energy required to run the cattle operation. Bradley says,

"I cannot add up how many hours I don’t have to do things now. Not putting up hay, not feeding hay, not chopping ice, not pulling cows out of ponds . . . It’s a matter of changing the mindset.”

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Water

Managed rotational grazing increases water holding capacity, retention, and infiltration. Often, one of the biggest challenges to implementing best practices for grazing is water. John Bradley’s system evolved with water quality as a primary concern. He installed frost-free waterers which ensure that livestock have year-round access to clean water. Watering cattle away from ponds and streams impacts water quality and wastes less water.

These low-maintenance, highly reliable systems are simply amazing.  See for yourself! Watch the video: John Bradley – Securing Water for the Future.

John Bradley Securing Water for the Future from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


Riparian areas and stream banks are managed to exclude grazing. Bradley completed the Completed the River Friendly Farms program with the Kansas Rural Center, and continues to follow the principles set forth in that project. He installed two low water crossings which decrease disturbance of stream beds and reduce sediment in water flow. Plus, the low water crossings make it easier for livestock and vehicles to cross. Working with NRCS in Wabaunsee and Douglas County, Bradley planted buffer strips along all creeks that are or were being farmed to decrease erosion. They planted the crop areas into native grass through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). John explains,

The fields were prone to erosion and fairly rocky soil, but these improvements both decrease erosion and loss of topsoil while improving the water quality.

While Bradley stockpiles grass for winter grazing, he still feeds hay as needed. To keep the cattle out of the mud and decrease non-point source contamination of streams, Bradley moved the feeding sites away from streams and ponds and installed feeding pads. The feeding pads use geotextile fabric beneath several layers of gravel. Feeding sites, and other areas with high livestock traffic, can end up with reduced vegetation and compacted soil. These conditions reduce infiltration and increase runoff problems. Additionally, the areas can become muddy and difficult for livestock to maneuver. Using geotextile fabrics in high-traffic areas can reduce these issues. According to Using Geotextile Fabric in Livestock Operations,

A geotextile fabric installed as a layer between gravel and soil layers forms a barrier against the movement or intermixing of the soil and gravel (see Figure 4). In applications where gravel is placed on top of a soil layer, as in conventional driveways, farm roads, or graveled areas, the separation provided by the fabric helps the gravel maintain its position and design load bearing capacity throughout its life.

Energy

Bradley’s management system is designed for one person to do most of the work in one day. Operating a busy veterinarian practice means that the operation must run smoothly with little daily oversight. Efficient use of human energy, wise use of available resources, and solar power all contribute to the overall management of the ranch.

Winter stockpile grazing reduces the need to feed hay from six months a year down to just 45-60 days (during calving) a year. Reduced haymaking saves fuel and nitrogen input costs. The property has mostly brome and fescue cool season grasses, so nitrogen fertilizer is required and has to be applied to make hay. Then you have to mow the hay, bale the hay, haul the hay to store it, and haul it when you need it. Additionally, you have to gather and spread the manure that collects in feeding areas. John explains,

Stockpile grazing utilizes the cattle for these tasks. You’re saving fuel multiple times and many man hours.

To manage the rotational grazing, Bradley uses solar chargers to power the electric tape fencing. The four solar chargers each power up to 10 miles of fence. The solar energizers are $150-$400 and the polytape is $28/656 feet, making the system extremely affordable and sustainable. Paddocks of 20-30 acres are internally divided into 5-10 acre paddocks with half inch poly tape with 4’ step in posts.

Instead of 15 cows grazing on 40 acres for one month, with adequate moisture I can put 15 cows on 5 acres and move them every three to four days. I’m still using the pasture for a month, but I’m using smaller portions of it at a time so the grass has more time for rest and recovery. Rotational grazing also helps by using less fertilizer.

Meadows are fertilized using a rotational schedule, as needed. The hay meadows are fertilized only in the years when they will harvest hay. Other pastures are fertilized on a three-year rotation. With rotational grazing, Bradley can put in much less fertilizer for the same number of cows. The hay meadows use 50% less fertilizer with all pastures seeing a 35-40% reduction in fertilizer needs. Additionally, Bradley is introducing legumes into the cool season brome which will further reduce the fertilizer needs.

Further reducing chemical usage, the majority of the woody brush on the property is controlled with spot spraying or with a pair of loppers and treating stumps after cutting. John explains,

I used to treat thistles by calling the county and renting a broadcast sprayer to spray the whole pasture. Spot spraying reduces herbicide use, saves time and energy and preserves forbs. Manual control of brush (instead of broadcast application) has resulted in an increase in milkweed, blue indigo, rattle snake master, and other healthy forbs. It is not a native grass stand, but is not as much of a monoculture as it used to be so it is also better for pollinators.

The frost-free waterers (described in the Water section) benefit the livestock, but they also make for easier management in the winter, saving time and human energy. Bradley has installed five frost proof watering tanks, with plans to install a sixth. Frost free tanks save human energy and are safer for cattle – no drowned calves or injured cows. Plus, there is no need to chop ice in winter.

Solar powered submersible water pumps save energy and help distribute watering sources. Bradley used one semi-permanent pump on an old well powered with a solar panel. During the drought, the well dried up and the solar panel was stolen. The system worked well, and Bradley hopes to replace the solar panel when the well has water again. In addition to this semi-permanent system, he has two portable systems. Using a two wheel trailer with solar panels, submersible pump, and water hose, Bradley can set stock tanks where they are most needed. He explains,

I set the trailer about 100 feet away from the pond and run the garden hose to the pond. A PVC pipe lays on the bank of the pond half submerged with a screen filter on the bottom of the pipe. The water pump attaches to the garden hose which is run through the pipe. A post on the trailer holds the solar panel which has zoom reflectors on the sides so it rotates as the sun moves across the sky. Two deep cell 12 V marine batteries store electricity so the pump works on cloudy days as well. The other end of the trailer has another garden hose that goes to a smaller portable stock tank. I unroll as much of the hose as needed to set the tank where needed. It works great!

Progress

Bradley has replicated the practices on the Douglas County Property on another piece of land in Wabaunsee county. That pasture used to be divided into just two pastures; cattle spent half of the summer on each. Now there are seven paddocks that rotate with less than a week in each paddock. The tenant who manages the Wabaunsee property has now started using the same methods on other properties.

"Are these systems are affordable? Absolutely!” The concrete tanks are about $500 each with an installation of $1600 for a total cost of $2,250. Bradley says,

The tanks will last a lifetime. If you amortize that over 25 years, it is very affordable. Beyond the input cost, the last eight years have been maintenance free except biannual cleaning of tanks. Looking at the alternative, the tanks eliminate loss of calves drowning or cattle getting hurt on ice. With current market prices, the cost of just one animal drowned would more than pay for the complete watering system, installed! Plus one saves time and no longer needs to drive out to chop ice on tanks in extreme temperatures. I cannot add up how many hours I don’t have to do things for the cattle now. Not putting up hay, not feeding hay, not starting cold tractors, not chopping ice, not worrying about injury on ice or frozen mud and hoof injuries . . . it’s a matter of changing the mindset”

Bradley also recycle extensively on the farms. Bradley says,

Composting and spreading manure is apretty standard practice. We have taken the next step to recycle tons of metal that we have gathered from old fence wire, machinery, metal water tanks, old culverts, fence posts, pipe, barn tin, etc. It is impressive once one re-sets the mind into recycling how many things can be reused. The newer property where we are installing the frost free water tank this summer has a creek. We have removed water tanks, an old buzz saw and pulley and a pull type combine from the creek as well as hundreds of tin cans and bushels of glass jars....all recyclable!!! Amazingly, water downstream no longer has trash floating in it!

The systemic approach prioritizes water availability, water quality, and animal health and prepares a solid path for the future of the Bradley ranch.

I can lower my inputs, lower my energy costs, lower my capital expenditures for hay, lower my health costs and still maintain a healthy herd because we’re designing it for where we live and what resources we have.

I think Water is going to be huge. I think water will be the rate limiting resource for us. Part of our rehabilitating ponds is with the goal to increase water storage because I think that is going to be really important. For us, water storage in the form of ponds and giving clean water access below the pond in a water tank, is our solution. I think climate change is real. We can quibble about why we have climate change, but I think we are living that right now. I think water is going to be extremely important.
 

John Bradley, Building a Grazing System Where You Are with the Resources You Have from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


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