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:

  • How much feed wastage is associated with this practice?
  • Is there any damage to fields the next year?
  • Is manure evenly distributed?

An applied research organization called Lakeland Agriculture Research Association (LARA) based in Alberta looked at some of these questions.

Feed Wastage:

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

Year
Bale Type
Orientation

Estimated

% Waste

% Manure

in Residue

Initial Quality
Waste Quality
CP(%)
TDN (%)
CP (%)
TDN (%)
2008
Fescue/Alfalfa
end
17.69
15.76
13.86
58.33
7.65
43.43
Reed Canary
end
19.11
12.48
9.96
53.37
4.91
44.26
2009
Fescue/Alfalfa
side
9.96
20.24
14.49
58.89
9.57
45.49
end
13.48
18.82
2010
Fescue/Alfalfa
side
7.27*
34.96
10.69
54.72
7.42
41.85
end
16.59
32.69
2011
Fescue/Alfalfa
side
7.12b
20.02
end
16.08a
21.85
Average:
Fescue/Alfalfa
side
8.54
20.13
13.01
57.31
8.21
43.59
end
15.96
22.28

*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.

Yield Benefit:

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.

Bale grazing spring rings.

Figure 2: Bale grazing spring rings.

Why bale grazing is an effective tool:

  • Bale grazing can reduce feed costs. By storing bales close to the pasture area, and putting them out on the field at one time, labour and machinery costs can be reduced significantly.
  • Manure is distributed across fields as the cows eat. There is a fairly even distribution pattern. You don't have the cost of spreading manure from yards.
  • Low fertility areas of a field or pasture can be increased through bale grazing. The "wasted feed" adds nutrients, and the manure gets applied to areas that may not get manure.
  • Cows get effective exercise, which has been shown to be important in keeping muscle tone on cows for calving.

Bale grazing challenges:

  • Wet conditions can see the cows pug up the soil.
  • Too much snow can make cow movement between bales difficult and increase feed wastage.
  • Older cows and heifers can lose body condition due to a colder, more exposed environment.

Other considerations:

  • Twine should be removed. Sisal does not break down fast enough over winter.
  • Foragebeef.ca recommends using a maximum density of about 800 cow days/acre which, depending on bale weight, works out to about 25 bales/acre. Monitor the following summer's vegetation response to avoid excessive nutrient loading to determine when to return to this feeding site.
  • Leaving cows in one area for longer periods of time will increase nutrient load and feed wastage.
  • Cows need wind breaks. Consider having portable windbreaks for the cows to reduce exposure and the resulting loss in body condition score.
  • Water availability can be an issue, especially if there is a lack of good quality snow for licking by the cows to satisfy moisture needs.

Bale grazing has been shown to reduce feed costs, improve soil fertility, and allow cows to live in a healthy environment.


For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca