What if this same system also kept your cattle clean during the winter without coats caked with mud and manure, allowed you to creep graze fall-born calves and built up the organic matter levels in your pasture soils? Would you be even more interested?
As far-fetched as this may sound, all these benefits are possible with an innovative winter feeding technique called “bale grazing.”
What is bale grazing?
Bale grazing is a winter feeding technique where bales are set out on pasture before winter and fed in a planned, controlled manner, somewhat like rotational grazing. Temporary electric fencing limits cattle access to those bales you want fed in the current move. With each move, a fence is set up to expose new bales, usually 50 to 100 feet in front of the previous fence, which is then taken down to allow cattle access to new bales.
Where hay rings are used, they are rolled from the old bales to the new bales and flipped over into place. The process is typically repeated every one to seven days. Properly planned, you will not need to use a tractor the entire winter, and nutrients will be deposited where they are needed. It’s simple, cheap and effective. The only major requirements are an open mind, advanced planning and cattle trained to electric fence.
Ideally, hay is set out on pastures in late fall or early winter, right where you want it fed. In the upper South, we normally have good conditions for driving out on pasture through Thanksgiving and typically into mid-December. These drier conditions are ideal for setting out bales without causing any damage and doing it efficiently.
On most farms with reasonable slope, you can pull a loaded hay wagon or trailer with a pickup truck in dry conditions and move a lot of hay quickly. With smaller bales (I like 4X5s), you can even roll them off the trailer by hand, right into place, without using a tractor to unload.
We have moved all our winter hay onto pasture in less than half a day using this method.
Moving wagon loads of hay in dry conditions is much more efficient than hauling one or two bales at a time by tractor. Properly planned, your winter machinery costs will be a fraction of what they would be feeding hay conventionally.
As a practical matter, when starting out, I would recommend setting out 70 to 80 percent of your estimated hay needs in late fall and plan to distribute the remainder at easy access points in the pasture. This way, if you overestimated your hay needs, you will not have to move bales off pasture in April. After a couple of winters, you will be able to better refine your estimates.
Bale grazing combines very well with stockpiled pasture. With this system, cattle get both hay and a strip of stockpiled pasture with each move. Since stockpiled pasture is typically better in both energy and protein compared to typical hay, the stockpile can effectively serve as both an energy and protein supplement.
As a general rule of thumb, I like to move the fence two or three times per week. Most of the cattle producers I know who do not use hay rings say you should only put out enough hay for two days, or you will have excessive waste. I know of one farmer in Missouri who has had good luck without rings by feeding every two days and tipping bales onto their flat side.
He claims this method significantly reduces waste. I will experiment with his technique this winter but have traditionally used hay rings and rolled them across my pastures. It normally takes about two or three minutes round-trip per ring to roll into place.
Always start from a water source and move away from it. You do not need to use a back fence, but it is a good idea when practical to set up two forward fences – one for the current move and another for the next move. In case something happens to your first fence (e.g., wind or deer knock off a few posts), you will still have an additional fence that will protect the bulk of the hay bales.
If cattle have access to a 10-acre pasture with 50 unprotected bales, they can do a lot of damage in a couple days. It goes almost without saying your fence needs to stay hot, and cattle need to respect it. Find and correct any shorts or problems before the cattle do.
Benefits from bale grazing
I used to think the improved capture of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) and reduced winter feeding machinery costs were the primary benefits of bale grazing. I’m not sure anymore. Soil organic matter will improve through manure and wasted hay deposited on pasture. Increases in organic matter will increase soil mineralization of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, and will improve the water-holding capacity of the soil.
Improved animal health results through constantly moving the feeding area and having less associated mud and manure typical in conventional feeding. For fall-calving herds, you can creep graze or feed calves by adjusting the height of the electric fence. They will pick through the grass and hay without competition from the cows.
A ton of mixed grass hay has roughly 35 pounds of nitrogen (N), 12 pounds of phosphorus pentoxide (P2O5), and 53 pounds of potassium oxide (K2O). Assuming 75 percent of the P and K, and 50 percent of the N, are effectively captured back into the pasture, this would amount to around $20 in fertilizer value per ton of hay fed at current fertilizer prices.
At 4 tons of hay per acre, this would effectively result in $80 per acre in fertilizer value, all as a byproduct from feeding hay on pasture. The other benefits are harder to quantify, but nonetheless important benefits from bale grazing.
Concerns with bale grazing
Bale grazing originated in the High Plains in the U.S. and Canada. While it is ideally suited for this region due to typically dry conditions and frozen soils during winter, it can be modified for effective use in other regions. The main reason people are afraid to try bale grazing in regions with more rainfall and warmer winters is concern over whether it will damage or pug pastures.
While this is a legitimate concern, I have generally found that with good management, pugging can be kept to a minimum in most years.
The key is to feed at low densities. In the upper South, I generally recommend keeping feeding densities to 4 tons of hay (roughly eight 5X5 bales) or less per acre. If you have a moderate stocking rate in this region at 2 acres of pasture per cow, this would likely necessitate feeding hay on 30 percent of your pasture acres. In my opinion, bale grazing on 20 to 33 percent of your pastures each year is ideal.
Farms that have a higher stocking rate will have a more difficult time effectively implementing bale grazing, as they will have to feed more hay on fewer acres and this will, by necessity, be at higher densities. Lower stocking rates of 2.5 to 3 pasture acres per cow are the easiest to manage to keep pasture damage to a minimum.
Do not constrict cattle to small areas. When I start bale grazing a new pasture, I continue to give them access to the previous pasture, either in full or in part. This will keep them from being concentrated. Be flexible. If you are bale grazing an area that has drainage problems, move to another area when it is wet. When you have really nasty weather and mud, move to the drylot or feeding pad if you have one.
Hay waste from leaving bales outside for months is another concern. However, this one is almost completely unfounded, at least in the upper South. Hay set out in pasture during the summer in this region with its high rainfall, heat and humidity would be expected to have significant rot even after one or two months.
But this same hay, set out in late fall or early winter after temperatures have dropped, will experience very little rot as the biological organisms that break down hay are not active at this time of year. If you set out hay in late fall that is in good shape with a thatch largely intact, you will be amazed by how little rot occurs even by March.
Bale grazing is not for everyone. It takes good management, reasonable stocking rates and cattle that respect electric fences to be successful. But it also takes the right attitude to make it work. Farmers who enjoy recreational tractor driving and playing in the mud will find excuses why it won’t.
But for those with the right attitude who learn how to implement it effectively, the benefits can be great. Once you figure out how to bale graze effectively, chances are good you will never go back to conventional hay feeding. I’ve never met anyone who did.
PHOTO: As hay bales are stationed throughout winter pasture, the feed rings can be easily moved to new bales to reduce waste. Photo by Greg Halich.
Greg Halich is an associate extension professor in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky. Email Greg Halich.