Experimentation, new ideas mark Novak’s work

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
With production costs on the rise, ranchers know they must use every resource and management tool available to keep their operations in the black.

Few if any ranchers in the immediate area have gone to any greater lengths than Kelly Novak of Tampa.

The Marion County farmer/ rancher is at the forefront in a concept that’s sweeping across cattle country called rotational grazing.

Because of Novak’s dedication, knowledge and willingness to experiment and try new ideas to aid the bottom line on his ranch, Novak has been named as the recipient of the 2003 Grassland Award sponsored by Sharp Brothers Seed Co. and the Marion County Conservation District.

“What got me going on this was the need for grass for our cows/calf operation,” Novak explained. “We had to go quite a ways to graze them so we ended up having to buy our pasture. But that just doesn’t always pencil out with the price you have to pay for grass.

“The goal was to make that pasture cheaper per cow and you can do that with rotational grazing because you’re getting more animal units out of your grass,” he added. “You have to do what you can do to save your resources.”

Rotational grazing requires the producers to develop skill in decision-making as well as in monitoring the results of decisions. Livestock are moved to fresh paddocks periodically, providing time for pasture re-growth.

Feed costs decline and animal health improves when animals harvest their own feed in a well-managed rotational grazing system.

“Rotational grazing allows your cattle to graze more evenly in the pastures and through rotational grazing, I’ve become more grass conscious,” Novak said. “The healthier state you can keep your pasture in, the more water you can collect and the less erosion you’ll have combined with cleaner water down stream.”

Novak added rotational isn’t a strategy that can be converted to overnight.

“You can’t do it all in one year or even in five years,” he said. “But you have to be progressive with it.”

Novak said he calculates he’s gotten a third more production out of his land than he did prior to converting to rotational grazing.

Novak has been experimenting and making the switch for the past seven years and has compiled an impressive list of accomplishments thus far.

“I started with three pastures of native pasture and grassland that totaled 1,200 acres,” he said. “I have it split up into 47 separate paddocks now.

“In order to accomplish that, I’ve used about three miles of pipeline and probably about 17 miles of fencing,” he added. “Basically it’s a matter of splitting your pasture into smaller pastures so the cattle won’t walk over a large distance for more appealing grasses.

“They’re forced to stay within a smaller area for a shorter period of time and then they’re moved to a fresh pasture.”

Novak said it’s a simple concept that guides rotational grazing.

“The whole idea of it is to get better grass utilization and at the same time have the cattle eat some of the less desirable grasses,” he said. “Once they’ve eaten that grass you move them, allowing the grass time to recuperate and come back.

“It keeps your forages in the highest quality condition because they’re in their growing state and not in the maturing state,” he added. “The grass has to bring the nutrients up from the roots if you let them get chewed off too short, so the rotational grazing system allows the grasses to rest in between.”

Novak funnels his cattle to a central location for their water supply. Once at that location, he has the option to disperse his cattle into numerous paddocks.

“The No. 1 thing in my opinion for rotational grazing is to have a good water supply,” he said. “The No. 2 thing is your fencing.”

Novak worked in association with his local Marion County Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service nearly 20 years ago to develop the natural spring for his pasture’s water needs.

“What I wanted to do was to pipe the water to more locations to keep the cattle out of the ponds because that creates a much healthier environment if you’re able to accomplish that.”

Novak said the folks at the area conservation office are knowledgeable.

“What I like best about working with those folks is they give you ideas and they have resources I don’t have access to. They’re able to come up with plans that will help a producer get a project done,” Novak said.

“Everything is trial and error if you haven’t done it before, but why not contact those people who have some experience so you’re not trying reinvent the wheel.”

Novak said an added benefit to rotational grazing is the producer’s ability to monitor the health of his herd.

“You become more acquainted with your cattle and you analyze them more closely,” he said. “You’re able to assess their health situation because you see them more often.”

Novak said the addition of Sara Kay Carrell as rangeland management specialist to the NRCS staff has been a welcome addition.

“She’s very knowledgeable about identifying both grass and weeds,” he said. “She can be very valuable to the producers because of her knowledge.”

Novak also finds information and new strategies through his association with Flint Hills Grazers, a group of ranchers from Marion and Morris counties.

“It’s a group of guys that is doing different things, but it’s all oriented toward raising cattle,” he said. “We pool our ideas so we can better save our grasses and even to a degree our soils.”

Novak said he also uses other resources to keep abreast of current trends in ranching.

“I read a lot and there are several grazing publications, especially talking about rotational grazing,” he said. “A lot of cattlemen with a small acreage of grass think they’ll just fill it and use the ‘Columbus’ method of running cattle.

“They go out in the fall and discover their cattle.”

Novak said rotational grazing isn’t for everybody.

“It takes time, it takes management, and you have to like to do it,” he said. “You have to put your grass as a priority.”

Winning the Grassland Award came as a surprise, Novak said.

“I think the NRCS hasn’t been out to see as many other guys’ operations as they should have been,” he said with a laugh. “I think the reason I was singled out is because I’m doing things a little bit different than some others.”

Novak said the first step to a sound grazing program should begin at the local conservation office.

“It’s one resource more ranchers and cattlemen ought to pursue if they have a question as far as grass, water systems, or even fencing is concerned,” he said. “It used to be more for crop land, but they have a world of knowledge about grasses and the likes.

“Conservation is going to pay off in the long run, not just in crop land, but also in your pastures.”

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