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Bale Grazing: Feed the Cattle, Feed the Pasture

By   /  December 2, 2013  /  9 Comments

If you didn’t have a chance to stockpile forage for winter grazing, here’s another way to make your life easier, your animals’ lives better, all while improving your pastures.

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Editors Note: Bale grazing on fields is a method of providing feed to beef cattle during the winter
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About the author

Brett Chedzoy is a Forester with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County, NY and grass-fed rancher in Watkins Glen, NY and Argentina. Brett can be contacted via CCE’s silvopasture forum: www.silvopasture.ning.com. Additional silvopasture resources are available at: www.forestconnect.info under the “publications” page.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for the informative article. Some additional thoughts: We use baleage in our bale graze situation, leaving the plastic behind as we go (so we don’t need to get out the tractor). It takes less than a day with 3 or 4 people and a tractor to clean up this waste in the spring. In our case we’re looking to renovate pasture, so we set out our bales fairly close, and use a tractor to push bale waste into a compost pile while we’re cleaning up bale plastic. We’ve found that broadcast seeding directly onto this scraped area makes for great pasture by the end of the first growing season. In fact, were grazing last year’s bale graze area right now.

    For setting fence into frozen ground, we use an 18 volt cordless drill with an 8″ concrete bit to dill holes for fence posts. The bit drives right in and placing the posts is easy.

    Hope this helps.

  2. You mention trouble with temporary fencing. This is what has prevented our bale grazing so far — we are in a deep snow area, and we have both small and large ruminants. We don’t expect sheep net to be 1) possible to move in frozen ground 2) in good shape after being out all winter. If we only tried to control the cattle, would the sheep destroy the bales before they got to them? What other advice have you for making even single-strand polywire for cows more effective in deep snow and frozen ground?

    • Kathy Voth says:

      While this doesn’t solve the sheep problem, Grant Lastiwka of Alberta, Canada told me that they poke the fence posts into the sides of the bales themselves when the ground is frozen. That keeps the cows away from the upcoming bales so they eat the ones they’re supposed to be eating. I also use electric netting to keep my herd of 2 pet goats in pasture all summer. I’ve left the fence out through 11 Colorado winters. Though the fence doesn’t work when it’s in deep snow, it works perfectly when spring rolls around again. I’ve not seen any damage as a result of leaving the netting out.

    • Ross,

      My starting suggestion would be to make sure you have a really good charge on the temporary fence. Electric fencing is a psychological barrier, and you want to make sure the animals are downright afraid of the fence. We used to have more problems with the smaller critters ducking under single-strand fences until we switched to an intelishock 506 fencer (unusually high output under poor conditions) – problems went away because there was too much pain associated with testing the fence.

      I don’t think the sheep would waste too much hay if allowed to pick at round bales ahead of the cows – much would depend on time, ground conditions, and if twine is left on the bales. I don’t think I’d dare to leave netting on round bales – and even twine is a risk. Worth experimenting with though. And depending on the sheep, most will graze every last bit of grass that’s available before turning their attention on the hay (more so than the cows)

  3. Meg Grzeskiewicz says:

    I have a consulting client in western New York who is going broke doing pasture renovations every year, because his bale grazing causes so much mud it destroys the forage in his paddocks. What’s the trick to bale grazing in areas with wet winters in order to preserve pastures, so he doesn’t have to plow and reseed every year?

    • Meg,

      Sometimes the high-impact of bale grazing is a desired pre-cursor to (planned) pasture renovation or seeding some type of annual crop. But when the farmer likes things “just the way they are” and doesn’t want to spend $$ in the spring to fix and reseed feeding areas, then I suggest a combination of the following:

      – move animals to sacrifice paddocks or dry lots during soft ground conditions – especially on heavy soils

      – spread the bale grazing out over a wider portion of the farm to reduce ground impact and waste hay accumulation

      – move animals more quickly under softer ground conditions. Yes, it’ll seem like they muck up more ground, but the damage will be less intense and it’ll be less likely that the impact will surpass the threshold for self-recovery.

      – we don’t use ring feeders: partly because of the cost, but mostly because it creates a moat around every bale.

      – consider smaller-framed animals? There’s quite a difference between the ground pressure exerted by a ~1500 lb frame-5.5 cow, and a ~1100 lb frame 3 cow (both of which have about the same-sized hoof). I understand that this may not be possible, depending on the breed and objectives. But I feel that our smaller cows are more gentle on the land – no matter what the ground conditions.

      – Excessively compacted soils may be sufficiently remediated with a light frost seeding of tillage radish (or other Brassica), chicory, or other plants with reputed deep-penetrating tap roots.

      The farmer is going to have to figure out just which of these (and other possible tactics) will work best in his/her own context. The farmer also needs to consider the costs of the alternatives (barn yard runoff/water quality issues, manure handling/storage, animal health and comfort, etc. Yes, it may be expensive to occasionally reseed a paddock here and there that gets a little too much bale grazing at the wrong time, but keeping the cows behind the barn for the winter is not without its own (significant) costs.

      The last thing that I’ll say on this is to use some patience. Sometimes, particularly in late winter, some of the bale grazed areas can start to look pretty raw. It’s tempting to have a knee-jerk reaction and start discing and seeding when the ground gets dry enough – but I’ve found that things usually don’t look nearly as bad by the end of the summer as I initially thought. We’ve also found it helpful to broadcast a bit of Italian ryegrass on “overly” disturbed areas – it’s not a big expense (~$15-30/acre) and seems to do a nice job of “filling in the holes” and reseeding itself.

  4. Bale grazing can offer both economic and environmental advantages compared to traditional intensive winter feeding. It can reduce the costs for labour, machinery and fossil fuels, both in the feeding of the bales and manure handling.

  5. Kristin says:

    I would love to be able to do this but in this part of Tennessee, the ground rarely freezes. Yes, I know we should be grazing year round. We’re not there yet. How long does it take for the bales to break down? And do you see a weedy flush afterwards? We “park” our meat animals (some steers & sheep) in area that are thin on organic matter for the winter, usually 3 months, but we tend to get weeds for a year or two afterwards. Thanks for another great post, btw!

    • The amount of time for waste hay to breakdown – and what follows the breakdown – will depend on numerous factors. For “normal” residual conditions, the waste spots are generally decomposed enough to be completely re-vegetated by the end of the first growing season. Warm season weeds may dominate on the spots for a year or two, but will eventually give way to better grasses and forbs.

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