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HomeGrazing ManagementBale Grazing Dos and Don'ts

Bale Grazing Dos and Don’ts

Click to download the entire fact sheet.
Click to download the entire fact sheet.

If you’re going to be feeding your livestock this winter, bale grazing could be right for you. It can save you time and money and even improve your pastures. Here are some tips from the Manitoba Grazing Council to help you get started and make it work for you.

How Many Bales Should You Put Out?

This math really isn’t any different than what you use when you’re figuring how much hay to purchase.


The amount of dry matter feed needed will be 2.5 to 3% of each cow’s body weight. Don’t forget to factor in waste. In the Manitoba publication they suggest 20% as a good rule of thumb for figuring waste. Others suggest numbers as high as 50%. Check with an expert in your area to give you an idea what to expect. To figure how many additional bales you’ll need due to waste, multiply the number of bales times your estimated waste percentage. That will give you the additional bales needed.

Here’s an example.  You have 200 cows. Each weighs 1400 pounds. They need 2.7% pf their body weight in feed and you’ll be feeding for 92 days. The bales weigh 1,200 pounds with 85% dry matter.


Where Should You Bale Feed?

Not sure what pasture grasses you've got? Here's an On Pasture article to help you out.
Not sure what pasture grasses you’ve got? Here’s an On Pasture article to help you out.

Seeded perennial fields with at least one “rhizomatous” grass species are best for bale grazing. Rhizomatous grasses (smooth bromegrass, quack grass, Kentucky bluegrass) spread through both seeds and roots (rhizomes) and are best adapted for growing up through the waste that will be left behind from bale grazing. Bunch grasses have greater difficulty doing this. If your pasture is dominated by species like crested wheatgrass, meadow bromegrass) you might find dead spots and weed growth where the bales were placed. Avoid using native prairie pastures for bale grazing. These species don’t respond as well to high nutrient loads associated with bale grazing. You might simply set yourself up for a weed or tame species invasion.

When you’re choosing your bale grazing site, think about where water will flow during spring melt. Since bale grazing concentrates manure in the feeding area, water can carry those nutrients to new locations. If you’re bale grazing on top of coarse textured soils, water can carry excess nutrients into ground water. Sloping pastures may mean runoff into nearby streams or ponds. In Manitoba, there are laws prohibiting pollution of groundwater and waterways, and there is growing concern about this in many places that could lead to regulations. It pays to consider your down stream neighbors.

How Should You Place Your Bales?

• Place bales with sisal twine on their sides, because it will rot.

• Place bales with plastic twine on their ends, so the twine can be removed in the fall before feeding.

• Place bales on a grid of 40 ft centers (Leaving 30 to 35 feet (9 to 10 metres) between the bales, to allow uniform manure nutrient coverage).

• In Canada, the bale grazing area must be 328 feet (100 metres) from a surface watercourse, sinkhole, spring or well. This is to protect waterways from nutrient bearing runoff.


How to Use Fencing to Feed Bales

An electrified wire fence with a very good ground is your best friend when bale grazing. Wire should be placed between the rows to ease the animals’ movement for the next feeding. If the ground is too hard to pound in fence posts or fiberglass rods, simply stick them into the bales.

Snow is a good insulator and one wire won’t be effective in keeping animals inside the fence, making a high output energizer and wire combination a better choice than string or tape. In areas with lots of snow an extra lead wire for the fencing or a double wire (hot wire on top and second wire connected to a good ground source) are your best bet.

Meet Your Animals’ Nutritional Needs

If your bales have varying feed qualities, the Manitoba experts suggest making sure that there are 2 days of good feed followed by 2 days of lower quality feed. This ensures that all stock get enough good food to eat to maintain through the winter.

In colder weather they recommend adjusting the feeding rotation length down a day (e.g. If your rotation is three days, reduce it down to two days) to increase the amount of feed to compensate for colder temperatures. Good clean water (or good clean snow if you’re using that as a watering source) are also important to maintaining herd health through the winter.

Pay attention to animal condition. Skinny cows may need some extra feed to get through the winter. Keeping track of which animals do well and which ones don’t will also help you decide which ones need to leave the herd.

We have articles in the works talking about the benefits of bale grazing from the standpoint of improving soil fertility and information on how to use bales in other ways to feed your livestock and your soil.


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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


  1. Good article, Kathy.

    I’ve been bale grazing here in New York State, on the Massachusetts/Vermont border, for about ten years.
    In that time I have used bale rings and also have divided up the pastures with polywire. I no longer use polywire or bale feeders. When the cattle go into a pasture they get the whole pasture, bales and all, free choice.

    I set out bales closer than the 30′ x 30′ grid, partly because the bales are smaller than you’ve used in your example and partly because i want as much hay as possible and spread as uniformly as possible on the ground. In doing this there is far less pugging and “spotting” of my pastures than when i used bale feeders and polywire.

    All bales are laid out on their sides in my pastures. I remove nylon twine or net wrap at the time i place the bales out. Sisal twine just stays on the bales. When i have a choice i buy sisal twine wrapped bales. I try to have all my bales out in September so the forage grows thickly between the bales.

    I choose which fields to overwinter/bale graze on strictly by the rate of forage growth on those fields relative to the other pastures on my farm. The lowest production pastures are the ones that get bale grazed.

    • In 2009/2010 I did a project with the Hudson Mohawk RC and D Council. We looked at what impact there might be from bale grazing on the soils of a pasture.

      My farm is hilly and the soils in the pasture monitored are silt clay loam. The first soil test to come back from Dairy One said I needed 80 pounds each of N, P, K and 2 tons Cal Carb to the acre in order to produce 4 tons dry matter/acre (think hay field). pH in that field averaged 5.8 and organic matter was 4.0.
      I did not put down lime or fertilizer. Instead, I fed 120 bales @ ~500#/bale on 6 acres from Dec 6, 2009 to April 6, 2010.

      We took soil samples from that field in July 2010 after i cut hay off on June 25. pH was 6.8 and Dairy One’s recommendation was for zero N, zero K, and 40 pounds P per acre. The lab recommended zero lime.
      The “lacking” phosphorous was actually there, but my Ca/Mg ratio was out of whack resulting in bound Phosphorous. FYI

  2. My farm is hilly. I use the hills to help unroll the bales but still have to help – pushing them around by hand like a giant dung beetle!

    . A round can unroll to 500 or 600 feet. Then my 200 goats can spread out on it. Less is wasted when they aren’t competing or climbing up a bale. Feed is distributed to all animals and the wasted hay is already spread with the manure. It doesn’t get as deep so it doesn’t kill the turf.

    I spread seed into the wasted hay and have gotten grass to grow on rocky areas although it will take a few years to see good results.

    For thistle patches – I set up a horse corral and either pitch the hay in or put a round bale inside a 20×20 or so corral (2 horses). The hoof action, a little thistle eating and the trampled hay pad = grass. My pens are usually round and now I have several grass “crop circles” growing in my clover and weeds. 🙂

    • Great information, Kim! I’ve been working on an article to describe the monetary benefits of unrolling hay to improve soil. It’s very complicated, so I’ve been slow getting it together. But this inspires me to get it out there to everyone. Thanks!

  3. I have been bale grazing my cows in the Northeast for about 5 years. Our winters are probably a lot wetter than out west, leading to more spoilage/waste of hay. I do a couple things to cut down on waste.
    First, while it may not be practical for large herds, when I place my bales, I cover them with 4×6 poly tarps that I purchased from a dollar store…protects the bale from icing and heavy snow. Pull it off in the winter and you have a totally dry bale.
    Second, I use bale rings. As I move the fences, I simply roll the rings to the next set of bales…way less wasted hay, but still leaves a nice dry spot for the cows to lay down the next day.

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