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Bale Grazing Advice From Ranchers to Save Money, Improve Soil and Forage, and Have a Better Life

Thanks for this video and the fact sheet go to Growing Resilience, a multidisciplinary team from the NRCS, Soil Health Labs, Mid-Missouri Prescribed Burn Association, South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, South Dakota Soil Health Connection, South Dakota Grassland Coaltion, and South Dakota Conservation Districts.

Why bale graze? To save money. One of the ranchers interviewed here says it costs him 14¢ per head per day to haul hay to his herd, but only a penny a day to feed bales in pasture. Not only that, each of the ranchers interviewed found that bale grazing improved their hay fields thanks to the extra fertility from manure and urine left behind. Finally, in keeping with one of On Pasture’s ongoing themes in 2022, bale grazing saves time. As Jodie Gaugler points out, the local FFA teacher says he can now feed his whole herd in just a weekend, so that he can actually keep his day job. For Jodie and her husband it means being able to do what they want to do with less wear and tear on them and on their equipment.

Though this isn’t a practice you can take up right now, you can begin thinking through how it might work for you, what resources you need and changes you might want to make. Then you have the spring and summer to prepare for an easier, less expensive 2022-2023 winter with your stock.

Watch the video, or scroll down to the transcript where I’ve highlighted some of the key points from the video. I’ve also added links to more On Pasture articles on bale grazing at the end of this one to add to your knowledge base.



Transcript: Bale Grazing – Three Ranches, Three Successes

Drew Anderson, Rancher, Lemmon, SD: We’ve been combination of bale grazing and winter grazing for four or five years. Typically we’ll winter graze into January /February and then we’ll start letting them up on these bales. This is hay field behind us, so  we hayed it. But we didn’t haul the bales off. We just left the bales and strung hotwire for probably a week’s worth of feed at a time.

Bart Carmichael, Rancher, Faith, SD: Our goal is to graze year round. We keep the cattle moving. But it don’t always happen. Last year we bale grazed I guess for 60 days and then we went back to grazing them early March. If the weather gets really tough or the snow gets hard, then they’ll have to come here to the bales. And that’s plan B. And then we’ll strip graze the bales in three day increments. And then all we have to do is move electric fence instead of starting the tractor every day.

Harold Gaugler, Rancher, Grant County, ND: We’ve been bale grazing now since 2010. The year before that we hauled manure out into the hayfield and decided that that was not cost effective to haul the manure out. Up until that time, we didn’t have the stockpile of hay that we had that year. So it was convenient that that year was the year that we were able to try it. the first year we had 380 bales that we put out on 120 acres and we had 167 cows that we were bale grazing that winter.

Every year we’ve changed. We’ve changed the design of how we set up our bales.

Drew Anderson: The biggest management change is we’re not running a tractor or a pickup down here to feed every day.

Harold Gauguler: We’ve gone from like 350 bales to start with to putting out a minimum of 1200-1500 bales now. When we started we were bale grazing that one field out on the highway and we went back there two or three years in a row. Then we incorporated the field out here. And now we have a third field south of the road down here plus we have the land over on Drew’s side of the hill that we’ve bale grazed. So we’re basically doing it once every four years [in one pasture] and we’re doing it a higher intensity. Other than that, we’ve put in infrastructure in terms of water development and fencing to make it easier for us. This is something long term for us so we’ve been doing it for 10-11 years and we don’t expect to change.

The Finer, Practical Points

Bale Location and Set Up

Get your bales in before the ground freezes.

Harold Gaugler: When we started out it was because our hay field had pretty well degraded soil conditions and we put the bale son top of the hills where there was open soil, no organic matter laying on the ground. And our purpose was to bring that into production and we have. Now in those same hay fields it doesn’t matter where we put those bales. We put them where we have the least expense in moving them right now.

For us, we do our winter set up in August/September. We use pretty much all fiberglass posts. We put those fiberglass posts in the fields where we want our fences to be and then we’ve come back after most of the rain and the late season rains are done and then we’ll go back and we’ll set the bales out in those fenced areas.

Metal posts survive freezing weather better.

Drew Anderson: We have got where we didn’t have enough posts to do the whole thing. I’ve drilled lots of holes with just a cordless drill and masonry bit and stabbed the post in and we’ve got along fine with that. It’s just if you got the material it’s handier to have the posts in the ground for us  before we start bale grazing. You know when it’s -20ºF and you got cows going back to where they’ve grazed, they’ll rub and they’ll bust those plastic posts off. So we’ve pretty much gone to using metal step in posts for bale grazing.

Graze into the wind so cows can use the bales as windbreaks.

Harold Gaugler: One of the things we learned right away is those bales will act as a windbreak. Those cows will line up in a V behind them and protect themselves and then the cows will kind of rotate into a place where they all get something to eat. We learned that you have to bale graze into the wind rather than with the wind so that they have those bales as windbreaks.

Consider what’s in your bales to avoid spreading plants you don’t want.

Bart Carmichael: In native prairie we’ll feed, if I have to feed, and they’re out there, we’ll try to use a grain crop, an annual so we don’t have to worry about invaders like crested wheat grass or brome coming in. Even millet or something, you might get a few plants growing, but they’re short lived. You’re standing there and the ground is spongy and it grew quite a bit of millet there but there was also western and echinacea and purple prairie clover growing. So it’s not killing out the natives but it’s adding nutrients to the soil.

Choose moves that work for your schedule.

Drew Anderson: I’ve heard there’s guys that are giving them a month’s worth of hay at a time. We’re at three/four days to a week. We’re using galvanized aircraft cable and I’ve got a drill that we wind the cable up with so it really doesn’t take much time. I can handle the labor of a four day/week-long move. It works for us at that level I guess.

Bart Carmichael: So we move every 2 to 3 days using a strip like that. Takes me about 9 minutes to  move that fence. You go out there if you’re checking water anyway and you can roll that fence up. You can do that on a daily move or anything and really balance out the cow’s nutrition. And it’s a time to be around the cows and observe them too so they get used to you and you see if something’s wrong.

Harold Gaugler: We’ve been in a fairly intense rotation program in our grazing system year round so we move our cows all summer long between four and 7 days probably. And all we have to do is derive out and honk the horn and they come and most times if we’re a day late they’re waiting at the gate for you.

Don’t Worry About Weather and Waste

Bad weather isn’t so bad.

Harold Gaugler: One of the concerns that we had – we were trying something different and those cows were out there in front of everybody in the world and we were concerned that somebody was going to think that we were abusing our livestock. One year we had to break paths with the snowmobile to get cows from one rotation to the next. And that particular year a blizzard was coming so we decided to bring those cows in. After the snow storm was all over we had said “Maybe we should go up and check and make sure there’s no cows left out there.” We got up there and there were 5 bales and 25 cows left standing next to the highway. They were just as happy as could be and they’d had no intention to come home. So they got along fine.

Waste isn’t such a problem.

Drew Anderson: So in bale grazing you hear a lot about waste or too much hay left over. And you can move them too soon and leave a six inch mat of residue which is gonna take a long time to break down. So part of it is a little bit of a learning curve on when to move the cows. There’ll be times when you couldn’t put the residue in a trash bag – they clean it up really good. And part of that’s how long you leave them. The nastier the weather, the better they clean it up. Sometimes the first year after the bales there’s a lot of residue. You might notice a thinner stand, but it’s almost impossible to find where a bale sat due to any possible detriment is what we’ve noticed.

Weeds are not a problem

Harold Gaugler: We don’t view that hay that’s out in the field as waste. That’s a fertilizer so if we can go out and buy bales of whatever, we’ll do it because we’re importing their nutrients into our system. You know I get asked a question, “Do you see weeds out there?” And yeah, we see weeds a year after we bale graze. But the first thing the cows go to eat when they get access to those spots are the weeds. They go to the green weeds and they eat those.

It Makes Economic Sense

Drew Anderson: It’s worked out really good for us. You know we’ve had years like 2016. We had a big blizzard over Christmas. I just rode the snow mobile down to check water. I didn’t have to plow snow to go feed or anything like that. That winter we did run out of bales to bale graze and so I was having to come down with the tractor to feed. I’d come down ever other day because I had to plow snow to get here and I was burning 35 gallons of diesel fuel a day. So the economics changed in a hurry from when I was bale grazing that winter to when I had to start rolling out feed to them. I ran a the numbers on the economics if I wasn’t plowing snow, but just if I could drive down here and feed. I calculated in the cost of hauling these bales off to the hay yard, which there’s a hay yard close, and then coming down and unrolling the bales every day vs bale grazing. It’s roughly 14 cents per head per day labor to feed these cows rolling the hay out. And if you pro rate the fencing materials over five years, which it all should last longer than that, you’re down to about a penny a day labor to feed 200 cows in this bunch. So a penny a day labor to feed these 200 cows vs 14 cents a day.

Bart Carmichael: Basically keeping it simple and keeping hours off our tractor. Tractor depreciation to run an hour on a tractor is $150 to $200 an hour. So even depreciation is real money because you go to sell that tractor, it’s a tradeoff. So those hours add up. I’ve lot of time done that in the winter time, run out there with the 4 wheeler and rolled up a fence and let the cows move.

Build a better ranch in the long-run

More production after bale grazing and easier hay making!

Drew Anderson: The biggest improvement visually is these are all hay fields so we’ll hay them every year, but we bale graze back on them. When you’re cutting the hay the next year, you can see form the swather where the bales sat because there’s a circle where the bales sat where the grass and alfalfa is a darker green and a lot of times the grass will be 6-8 inches taller. And the impact area where the bale was. And even in the regrowth after haying you can see an increase in production where those bales had sat vs the area where there hadn’t been a bale sitting the year before.

Harold Gaugler: You know I get asked a question how much have you seen improvment. And yea, I think we’re getting almost a third more hay production now than we had before bale grazing. Probably because of increased nitrogen from the manure and the urine that’s out there. But part of its because of the amount of moisture that you conserve out there too. They trample in some of those washed out areas that used to be runn off areas. They’ve rounded those off. They’ve smoothed them so when it comes to making hay it’s an easier process.

Drew Anderson: The cattle are bale grazing but they’re also grazing the regrowth alfalfa and the regrowth grass when they go into these areas so we’re getting quite a few animal days an acre doing it this way. Last year we had phenomal moisture so the hay production was really good but we’re pushing 100 animal days an acre on these hayfield bale grazing on just the material that came off those fields. Which is pretty incredible for this area.

Let the Cattle Work for You

Jodie Gaugler: Strangest people walk up to you and say “I bale graze now.” And it can be anywhere from a dozen bales or we have a neighbor if a storms coming he feeds for two days. The FFA teacher up in town says, “I feed on the weekends for the week. I couldn’t have my day job if not.” The best thing about it is you make it work for you. You make the cattle work for you. We spend many years working for our cattle and we’re trying to reverse that So we can do what we like to do but do it longer with less wear and tear.

More on Bale Grazing From On Pasture

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

Bale Grazing to Feed the Herds Above and Below Ground

Bale Grazing Dos and Don’ts

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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.

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