American economist and professor at the Harvard Business School, Theodore Levitt, said, “Creativity is thinking up new things; innovation is about doing new things”. As a thinker and doer, Organic Dairyman Tom McGrath resembles this remark when it comes to out-wintering dairy cows and enhancing the bottom line. What’s this fresh strategy revolutionizing the way for many farmers? Bale grazing.
In the tiny hamlet, Tom, Caroline and daughter, Elaine McGrath of Autumn Valley Farm raise 45 certified organic cows and produce 100% grass-fed organic milk for Maple Hill Creamery. Unique in that they are the youngest farmers in the cooperative, they also produce milk seasonally with cows dry during the winter months. “For us and our hill farm, this approach makes sense and gives everybody some needed downtime to recharge our minds and bodies,” said Tom.
Since the McGraths started their own journey five years ago, focus has been on building a profitable yet sustainable model. They are currently in the process of purchasing the farm from Tom’s parents. Improvements like a homemade New Zealand style parlor, fencing to facilitate grazing efficiency and crafting water delivery systems have helped, but according to Tom, “Managing soil fertility is paramount to our success.”
The McGraths use soil tests, a planned grazing chart, grazing management and targeted soil amendments to improve their valuable grass crop. “Bale grazing has improved our thin soils with needed nutrients, organic matter and seeds from the hay. It has definitely made a difference in forage production, cow health and labor savings, said McGrath. Our labor costs are next to nothing for both time equivalents as well as machinery costs as we spend about an hour a week tending to 45 cows”.
“Bale grazing is gaining in popularity, as it provides economic and environmental advantages over some traditional feeding methods,” says Lorne Klein, a Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture grazing and forage specialist. A few decades back, folks bale grazing their cattle were often considered poor managers; not so anymore. Particularly in the past 10 years, stockmen have begun to realize the benefits of this method,” said Klein.
Bale grazing is the practice of spacing apart individual round bales of hay across a field in strategic lines looking much like a checkerboard from the sky. In the McGrath’s case, dry bales are set out by a tractor in the fields that need the most fertility in early December. It’s pretty strategic to encompass woods as a shelter and to use a gravity water system along with a mineral feeder. They always have a lane back to the barn for the cows in case of emergencies.
Once hay feeding begins, a single strand of electric portable fence is strategically set across the field giving the cows access to only a small portion of the bales at one time, usually 5 days’ worth. The break wire is moved to a new set of bales when Tom and Caroline monitor their cows’ performance, and bale wastage is what they want. “We adjust bale densities to achieve different goals. Twenty-five bales per acre is our standard and has a very small nutrient runoff percentage, but if looking to restart a brush pasture we’ll go up to 35 bales per acre to achieve the desirable impact,” emphasized Caroline. They don’t back-fence the previous bales eaten so the cows have lots of room to “choose their bed.”
Tom says his dry cows never looked better and their body condition held just fine without grain even in tough winters because they don’t limit dry matter intake. “I think doing a better job with grazing management, soil fertility, adaptable genetics and forage production throughout the growing season is contributing to our success with over wintering. Better cows going into the dry period, better cows coming out into the milking string,” said McGrath.
“Bale grazing of winter hay has many benefits. As long as wind breaks are accessible, the cows prefer being outside. Even in stormy weather, when they have access to the shelter of a barn, they will tend to stay near wind breaks in the open air environment. Environmentally, when managed properly, the manure and urine are uniformly dropped across the landscape as the cows follow the rows of hay bales across the field,” said Jerry Lindquist of Michigan State University Extension.
According to many research trials and Grazing Consultant Jim Gerrish, those round bales contribute + $30/bale worth of fertility depending on current fertilizer prices while adding organic matter to the soil.
“Contrary to popular belief, a pasture or hayfield on which bale grazing is practiced is not destroyed by the hoof action. When bales are set out properly across the field and feed locations are constantly moved, there is little permanent sod damage. The resulting nutrient application rejuvenates old low yielding fields into highly productive stands after just a few years of bale grazing,” said Lindquist.
With that kind of impact, Tom assesses the area to see if it needs a light harrowing or possibility some grass and clover seed sowed. “At this point, we have just left it until summer and seen how the soil biology and soil seedbank work in tandem to give us this vibrant, productive sward. It’s pretty amazing to see the transformation. It’s made a believer out of me,” said McGrath.
Passersby in the winter sometimes wonder if the McGraths are retired since the tractors and equipment are parked with the cows out of sight, nestled amongst the round bales. Have no fear; they are most likely spending quality family time together creating an innovative plan to enjoy the next season even more.
Originally Published by Lee Publications