Bale Grazing Beef Cows
Feeding cows is expensive, time consuming, and challenging in poor weather. Keeping cows grazing longer in the fall reduces the amount of stored feed required for a beef cow in the winter. Stock piling grass for late season usage can keep cows on pasture until the snow gets deep. Many producers are now following the grazing season with a technique known as bale grazing.
This practice involves setting dry hay bales out across a pasture or hay field in the fall when the weather is good and the sod is firm. The bales are usually set out in rows or diamond shaped patterns with approximately 40 ft between the bales. Doing this usually will provide 25 bales/acre. Strings are removed from the bales. Generally bales are set on their side, rather than their end as this reduces wastage.
Management of grazing bales can be intensive or extensive. Generally, most farmers have tried intensive or using electric fence to restrict access to bales. This helps cows clean up all the hay in one section before moving on to more bales. Typically cows are given about 4 days of grazing in a parcel of pasture.
Some farms have tried leaving the bales in the field after baling (less intense as fewer bales/acre) and having the cows graze them over a larger area.
Some of the questions people have about bale grazing include:
An applied research organization called Lakeland Agriculture Research Association (LARA) based in Alberta looked at some of these questions.
To some, putting bales out in the field and letting cows eat and tramp in them seems to "waste a lot of feed". To determine how much wastage, LARA measured the amount of feed left behind by the cows (see Table 1). Wastage was measured on the same farm using the same cow herd for five winters. Each fall tarp was placed in the field with a flag in the centre of the tarp. After snow fall, bales were weighed and put on top of the flags. The cows grazed the bales in the winter. In the spring, residue was collected, the manure was sorted out, and the amount of hay left was weighed. Feed wastage varied between 7%-19%. Weather and the amount of snow had an impact on the amount of wastage. The average amount of wastage over the course of the trial was just under 16%. This compares to other studies from Alberta Agriculture showing waste of about 19% with this feeding practice.
Table 1: Feed Wastage
*Low number of data points, excluded from averages.
In a Greener Pastures grazing workshop this year, Steve Kenyon indicated that this "wasted hay" contains valuable nutrients to help build the soil. He estimates that every day of bale grazing adds 30 cents of fertilizer value to the field.
Work by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada determined that for every 1000 lbs of hay fed in a field, there is about 30 lbs of nitrogen, and 5 lbs of phosphorus left to improve fertility. Plus the organic matter and manure distribution increases soil fertility even more.
Research at the University of Saskatchewan compared bale grazing nutrient retention versus spreading manure. It shows that in-field feeding allowed 30%-45% recovery of added N and 21%-32% recovery of added P while spreading manure allowed only 5%-9% recovery of added N and 3%-5% recovery of added P.
Does bale grazing work for you? A calculator, linked from foragebeef.ca, called the Bale Grazing Calculator, helps answer that question.
The work at LARA shows that bale grazing improves the yield on hay land in subsequent years. Data collected showed yield increases of 30%-50% in subsequent years. Influencing factors include increased fertility, retained moisture and improved organic matter.
People who have bale grazed talk anecdotally about dark rings of growth around where the bales have been fed, with increased volume evident.
Figure 2: Bale grazing spring rings.
Why bale grazing is an effective tool:
Bale grazing challenges:
Bale grazing has been shown to reduce feed costs, improve soil fertility, and allow cows to live in a healthy environment.
For more information:
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