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Help From The Sun

A billboard-sized solar panel powers this Missouri producer's intensive grazing system.

Brad and Chery Fricke turned a marginal piece of land into a profitable part of their cattle operation when they designed an intensive grazing system powered solely by the sun.

Farming along the Missouri River, the Frickes have seen their share of floods. Each brings more sand, causing problems for row crops. Because the ground didn't do well in a corn rotation, the Hermann, MO, beef producers converted the land to Bermuda and ryegrass, which do “really well” in their conditions, Brad says.

“Once it's fully seeded, it's so heavy and thick that you can't see the ground,” he adds.

With a new crop came a new use for the 80-acre tract. The Frickes designed an intensive grazing system for their 600-head backgrounding operation. But they had one problem; there was no access to power for fencing and watering.

“We turned to a pilot program for solar power,” Brad says. “For this location, in the river bottom, it was a necessity.”

Capturing the sun

The Frickes received grant funding from the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for a Sun Tracker solar panel. The panel stores electricity for pumping water to 11 water tanks, through 1,000 ft. of irrigation line. It also energizes more than four miles of electric fence.

“The Frickes' (solar panel) is by far the largest system in Missouri,” says Roger Korenberg, Missouri DNR energy engineer.

Korenberg, who helps producers design solar-powered projects, calls it a “first-class system.” The unit consists of 12 panels, each capable of producing 150-watts of electricity.

To ensure optimum energy potential, the solar panel rotates and tilts towards the sun at all times. A backup battery fills in during periods of low sun. When fully charged, the battery can power the grazing operation for three days.

A solar-powered pump pulls water from a small pond in the middle of the grazing system and distributes it via underground pipes to each water tank. In dry times, Brad uses a four-wheeler to drag two, 500-ft. irrigation pipes across the ground. The pipes are connected to a dome sprinkler in the paddock, also fed by the solar-powered pump.

Irrigation is necessary given the soil type and number of cattle grazing. Korenberg says the two criteria made a larger solar-powered system necessary.

“Most systems in Missouri run 50 to 75 head through it,” he adds. The Frickes manage 600 head.

Rotating the cattle

Intensive grazing is new to the family's cattle operation. The first calves arrived at the site just last year. Calves spend 45 days being straightened out at the Fricke feedlot before moving to the grazing site. The site consists of 21 paddocks containing four acres. Each paddock shares a water tank.

Calves remain in one group and rotate through the system daily.

“Each morning, we come and check the calves and open the fence to the next paddock,” Brad says.

Permanent fencing exists every 16 acres. The Frickes use temporary polywire to divide the paddocks into four acres.

“We wanted to be able to move the fence out of the way if we were baling hay,” Brad says. “It is easier at 16 acres than four.”

He also designed a solid-fence enclosure for the “catch” paddock. The continuous fence is welded together to provide a sturdy structure for loading and unloading calves, he says.

“It allows us to bring calves in and sort them by weight to fill out our truck loads.”

An alleyway between paddocks allows for easy access to calves.

Tech marries management

Brad says solar technology made this system work.

“It would have been quite a task without it,” he adds. With the number of cattle the couple wanted to run, they needed the electric, high-tension wire. “It's better than stringing barbed wire.”

“We wanted to encourage (cattle producers) by showing them the benefits of solar power,” Korenberg says, “especially in the area of rotational grazing. We want them to see it as economical, even without a grant.”

It's been 30 years since cattle roamed this Missouri River bottom ground. By combining new technology and production methods, the Frickes successfully brought cattle back to their family's homestead.

Mindy Ward is a freelance agricultural writer based in Marthasville, MO.