Brian Brhel of Denton, Neb. is finishing his calves with fewer inputs thanks to adaptive grazing.
Brian Brhel of Denton, Neb. is finishing his calves with fewer inputs thanks to adaptive grazing.

By CBW Staff

In Nebraska, the influence of the late Terry Gompert has a wide berth. The University Extension educator was a holistic management champion with a gift of convincing cattle producers far and wide to take another look at their grazing systems. Among those who caught the vision was Denton farmer Brian Brhel whose pastures were overrun by brome.
“Terry really started me on a path of new thinking, of non-tradition,” says Brhel who runs 100 cow-calf pairs on two different properties just 15 minutes outside Lincoln, Neb. “It started with me recognizing how pastures would change when I grazed. It was exciting that I could influence the forage base by making different decisions rather than just buying more inputs. He started me on a journey of managing that way.”
In the early 2000s, Brhel’s pastures – some of which had been in the family tree for nearly a century – consisted of almost entirely smooth bromegrass. An adequate forage in some cases, the problem with this invasive species particularly on larger parcels of ground is that it crowds out the natural biodiversity that comes with native prairie. The resulting pasture is less dynamic for grazing, with all the grass maturing at the same rate and leaving less forage on the ground for other parts of the season.
“It wasn’t always this way,” Brhel says. “My grandma remembers a variety of grasses, not just brome. My goal is to influence that, so there’s a mix of forbs and grasses and not just a monoculture of brome.”
Grazing is his primary tool. Brhel uses a high stocking density, rapid rotation, and long rest periods to do this. He insists it’s not mob grazing, but rather adaptive grazing in that he keeps each component of this grazing system elastic. Today, he put out 60 pairs on a two- to three-acre paddock. The plan is to move the herd in one to three days, depending on what the grass looks like. He wants to maximize the herd’s forage intake but avoid compromising its future growth.
“My goal is the capture sunlight at all times,” Brhel says. “I always want to have a solar panel available, which is the leaf. So if I graze too low, I lose that solar panel.”
He acknowledges that one of the drawbacks many producers voice about managed grazing is the feeling of being tied-down to the rotation schedule. However, Brhel says he’s found a way around that with the flexibility of adaptive grazing. So much of this approach to grazing management is about being open to changing direction mid-season, often multiple times depending on both the pasture health and cattle forage needs as well as the producer’s preferences.
“It’s not as restrictive as people think,” Brhel says. “It’s really an art looking at where the cows were and the amount of regrowth happening, and this helps make decisions on where they need to be and how fast to move them. People think this is a lot of work, and there is management involved, but if I have a ballgame to be at or want to go on vacation, I’ll give the cows a larger area to graze.”
True to Gompert’s legacy, Brhel has embraced adaptive grazing holistically – looking at his cattle management system with a 360-degree view. After trialing different breeds, he’s settled on a Red Angus base that he selectively breeds to do well with his unassisted, 45- to 60-day late spring calving on pasture and grass-finishing.
“I’m constantly culling for animals that can thrive in my environment,” Brhel says.
His long-term goal is to be able to graze year-round. Every year, Brhel has been able to reduce the amount of hay fed in the winter. What hay he does feed, he gives to his herd in the pasture. The technique, called bale-grazing, involves putting hay bales down in poorer areas of pasture to build soil fertility. He points out the result of last winter’s bale-grazing: patches of darker green grass growing on the side of a slope in one of his paddocks.
“It’s hands-down the best way to build soil,” Brhel says.
He explains how better soil means better pastures, which grows better beef. Though he’s dabbled in selling consumer-direct grassfed beef, his primary marketing focus is simply to finish calves with fewer inputs. He’s been able to do this by eliminating the need for grain-finishing in lieu of using the forage already growing for free on his farm.
“So many of the crutches that I used to use or pay for now have become unnecessary because I manage cattle movement on my pastures,” Brhel says. “I enjoy seeing how good of beef I can raise doing what I’m doing.”
While he sells yearling stocker cattle to like-minded producers who are themselves interested in selling grassfed beef, most of Brhel’s calves are sold the traditional way – at area sale barns.