On the Quest for a Self-Propelled Grazing Cell

by Erin Beck

July 14, 2016

The farm girl in me has always held a special interest in beef cattle. So when I heard the words “self-propelled grazing cell,” I knew I had to visit the Dakota Lakes Research Farm.

Located near Pierre, South Dakota, Dakota Lakes encompasses 840 acres. Manager Dwayne Beck has one goal in mind with the farm’s research: increasing sustainability in agriculture.

Beck’s ideas have shaped the path that Dakota Lakes has taken since the cooperative enterprise between South Dakota State University and the not-for-profit corporation established by area farmers began in 1983.

Over the years, Beck has refined the farm’s research to emphasize healthy and biologically active soil development. Beck is a firm believer in no-till, and through methods such as rotation, sanitation and competition, he’s learned to manage pests without the use of pesticides.

“We attempt to prevent problems by addressing the cause rather than merely treating the symptoms as they appear,” Beck said.

The farm hasn’t supported livestock because Beck believes soil health needs to be well established prior to grazing. Now that he’s had several years to build up the soil profile, that’s about to change.

The Evolution of Rotational Grazing

Beck’s vision for the self-propelled grazing cell is finally coming to fruition. Although the prototype isn’t assembled yet, Beck says the grazing cell will be a paddock on wheels.

The operator will be able to program the solar-powered grazing cell’s location and tell it where and when to move. The automated paddock, complete with watering tank and supplement feeder, will move the cattle without human labor.

The idea behind the grazing cell is to transform labor-intensive rotational grazing into a more efficient process. While Beck has several ideas on how to construct the cell, he’s currently planning to use a combination of irrigation pivots that can be dimensionally adjusted depending on the number of cattle.

Eventually Beck would like to see the self-propelled grazing cell redirect feedlot cattle back to the land. He believes his research could revolutionize the beef industry by using the grazing cell to guide cattle through rotational grazing in cornfields. Greater energy efficiency can be achieved by reducing machine harvest and transportation of crops for feedlot cattle.

The grazing cell could lead to greater efficiency in beef production, but Beck knows that a great idea will not succeed unless it has direct economic benefit for the producer. The grazing cell will have to maximize forage harvest utilization for Beck’s concept to sell.

My tour of Dakota Lakes piqued my interest. But I know that as soon as the self-propelled grazing cell is fully functional, I’ll be taking another trip back.

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