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To Unroll or Not to Unroll? What Gives the Most Bang for the Buck When Bale Feeding?

By   /  February 24, 2020  /  6 Comments

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The other day my buddy, Steve Kenyon, and I were discussing why concentrated bale grazing is so superior for pasture rejuvenation versus unrolling bales. Steve is the author of ‘The Calendar of the Year-Round Grazier,’ teaches a course on how to graze year-round, and has been bale grazing for more than 20 years. Steve is a pretty smart guy and I respect his opinion. I have been bale grazing for almost as long as Steve and we have the same conclusion, that rolling out bales does not improve pasture the way concentrated bale grazing does. But why?

Steve believes it is because of the litter left on the soil after we bale graze. He feels that the litter is as important as the nutrients deposited. When we unroll bales, there are sufficient nutrients deposited, however, not much residue is left to cover the soil. I can’t say for sure that Steve is correct in his reasoning, but I certainly do agree with him.

When I talk about bale grazing, I am always referring to concentrated bale grazing. That means bales are placed in the pasture in rows, and then “strip grazed” in much the same way you might graze a pasture. In the video below, you can see our set up. We use electric fence and posts stuck into the bales themselves to section off bales for grazing.

For some reason, placing bales out every few days in a haphazard manner does not produce the same effect as setting up rows. It seems as though there must be a certain concentration before a pasture will cross a tipping point and really pop. To me “popping” means a 4- to 6-fold increase in grass production. It’s kind of like if there was a very poor village of 800 people and you gave each villager $10. Each person could buy a goat or maybe a bicycle. However, if the villagers concentrated their money on one thing, they could purchase equipment to pump water for irrigation. I see concentrated bale grazing the same way.

My experience is that concentrated bale grazing can completely change a pasture. The pasture shown in the video is a good example. In 2017 this 14-acre paddock produced only 39 stock days per acre (SDA) of grass. That winter, we set up bales in rows 40’ apart with the bales 20’ apart. The grazing season of 2018, we harvested 196 SDA from that paddock. That is a five-fold increase! When you put that kind of an increase together with a well thought out grazing plan, you are well on your way to creating an amazing grazing system.

I hear many people comment that they do not really get good production the first year after bale grazing. That is not my, nor Steve’s, experience. I think the reason we get great production right away is because the livestock are mobbed up a bit. When they are concentrated, there is more hoof action and more rooting which seems to loosen up the litter and allows the new plants to grow. The mobbing I speak of is not ultra-high density though. It’s just having 450 pair on 14 acres for two days.

Concentrated Bale Grazing is Good For Your Bottom Line

Now that you have read about the wondrous pasture rejuvenation from bale grazing, let me talk about the economic benefits.

As I mentioned earlier, I started bale grazing in 2003. That year, when the swath grazing was done for the 180 cows we were custom grazing, I started rolling out bales with two of our saddle horses. My dad designed a contraption that looked like large ice tongs so my input costs were pretty low. The yardage to feed that herd with horses was $0.25/day/head. I don’t think the horses were too impressed with me! But boy were they in good shape when spring arrived.

I know my yardage was $0.25 because a friend, not Steve, was bragging one day about how cheap he could feed with his bale truck. In fact, he figured he could feed cheaper than what I was doing with my horses. He kind of pissed me off, so I challenged him to a feeding dual! We agreed on an hourly rate for the horses, his truck, and our labor. After the dust settled, his yardage was $0.35/day and with horses was $0.25/day.

Then I heard about this thing called bale grazing. When I calculated that yardage, it was only $0.10/day. Boy did my horses celebrate because that was the last time they ever rolled out another bale!

Here is a table comparing the cost of rolling out bales versus bale grazing for a herd of 100 cows. I have valued the yardage using a tractor at $0.45/day based on data from Alberta Ag a number of years ago. For this example I am only including the yardage differences between the methods. Each method incurs other costs associated with yardage calculation.

This winter my apprentice has been shanghaied to the feedlot so I am doing most of the bale grazing myself. You may recall we finished grazing stock piled grass January 2. So since January 2, I have been spending about four hours every three days feeding 802 dry cows and 478 bred heifers. When the pickup I use to drive to the herds is included, my yardage is only $0.06 per head or $6 per 100 head. I’m not sure if I can do better than that, but I keep trying to see how low I can go.

What About Waste?

Before I conclude, the question of waste must be dealt with since everyone who does not bale graze uses that as a reason not to change what they are doing. I budget 35 pounds per day for a 1350 pound cow which is the same amount many people budget for when they feed every day with a bale truck, tractor, or bale shredder.

Research done at the University of Saskatchewan a number of years ago, found that hay wastage when bale grazing is about 18%. That is the same waste as when using ring feeders. More recently, a trial done by the Lakeland Agricultural Research Association (LARA), found that placing the bales on end wasted 18% vs only 10% if the bales are placed on the side. My question though, is it really waste?

In this article, I have discussed the cost savings due to reduced equipment and labor. I’ve also given you an example of the revenue benefit with increased grass production. In the yardage comparison table, bale grazing saved $2,500 and $3,500 vs unrolling with a bale truck or tractor respectively. In the increased grass example, when the difference between 39 Stock Days per Acre and 196 Stock Days per Acre (a total of 157 SDA) is converted to cash per acre, that is a revenue benefit of $108. (I use the custom grazing rate for this area to calculate $/SDA.) That works out to $0.69/SDA. My experience is that you do not get such a significant grass response with unrolling bales

So there you have it! That’s my experience with bale grazing vs unrolling bales. Just so you know, this message has been endorsed by Steve Kenyon!

Want to Learn More?

Here are a few articles on the logistics of bale grazing.

Bale Grazing Dos and Don'ts. If you're going to be feeding your livestock this winter, bale grazing could be right for you. Here are some tips to get you started.Bale grazing is a good tool for improving soil health while reducing costs. In this video, Montana ranchers describe how well it has worked for them.

 

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About the author

Tom, along with his wife Jan, started raising & direct marketing hogs, sheep, cattle, turkeys, & chickens in 1999, the same year they completed a Holistic Management course. Their operation slowly morphed into custom grazing cattle on rented land and Tom’s passion for managing grass grew in the process. Tom & Jan completed the Ranching for Profit school in 2003 and found the ‘missing piece’. Since then, Jan has fulfilled her dream of being a nurse & Tom is currently the Production Manager of a ranch in north east British Columbia.

6 Comments

  1. ron rusk says:

    We have roof cover for all our bales and it practically eliminates waste in the field with ring feeders. The best place to store hay is in the barn. How much waste do you get leaving these bales in the field all winter? A lot from my experience. My barns paid for themselves a long time ago with better animal performance and waste reduction. The animal waste is in the right place and is spread out evenly with daily moves of the rings.

  2. Kristin says:

    I am curious where the author is located. I am in Tennessee where we have a lot pf winter rain, little snow. Our hay would degrade pretty rapidly sitting out in the weather.

  3. Bruce Howlett says:

    Bales don’t really roll onto sheep unless they are on their way down a hill anyway. We feed bales on pasture for a month or more each year, but bring them out individually as needed. I’m not a fan of this system. Sheep will waste quite a lot of hay by standing on the bale and spoiling it. Bale feeders substantially reduce waste. The next summer, we find that areas buried under waste hay produce much less forage than undisturbed areas. The following year it can catch up, depending on which species survive and how wet the field is. Drier areas respond better than in wetter areas.

    Bruce
    Bobolink Farm, E Montpelier VT

  4. Rud Wasson says:

    It’s been my experience that bales need to be placed on end for sheep. Otherwise, there is a chance that it will roll on the sheep. Not a concern for cows and calves but certainly one for ewes and/or lambs.

  5. The grass whisperer says:

    Excellent analysis. Thank you for your perspective. In our heavy snow load, perpetual Novembers and cool season grass area, I’ll have to think harder.

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