By: Jerry Lindquist, Michigan State University Extension
The benefits of grazing are numerous. Grazing allows animals to feed themselves in a low stress environment, lowers human labor requirements for feeding and manure management, as well as creating a more pastoral image of the animals spread out across the landscape contently grazing forages at their leisure.
In northern climates these benefits are assumed to end once the fields turn white with snow. But a growing trend in the beef cow-calf industry is to continue the benefits of grazing all winter long by using the concept of bale grazing. Bale grazing has been around for decades in one form or another. Midwestern farms often practiced it once the corn stalk fodder ran out in a corn field, others evolved into it once their cow herd grew too large to be contained in a barnyard. As a solution, they began feeding hay on adjoining pastures and crop fields that had wind breaks. With the advent of the hay round baler it became much easier to set a supply of winter hay out for the cows to consume in locations farther from the farm buildings. Then in the last twenty years this practice was refined and given a name – bale grazing. It has since been talked about in trade magazines, at educational conferences and its popularity continues to grow.
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. The entire supply of hay to be fed through the winter is set out at one time in the fall. Then 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. After so many days of feeding by the cows, once the hay is cleaned up, the electric wire is re-set to feed off another portion of the bales. Once the bales are initially set in place in the late summer or fall, a tractor may not be needed to feed the cow herd for the rest of the winter. The hot wire and portable posts can be moved by hand thus avoiding jelled fuel lines, dead batteries, snow plowing and cold weather engine wear and tear on the tractor.
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 on frozen ground, bale grazing is better than feeding in a confined dirt lot area, as the manure and urine are uniformly dropped across the landscape as the cows follow the rows of hay bales across the field. Once dropped these nutrients are absorbed by the root system of the sod that is still active under the snow. These sod fields are a much better location for the nutrients to be deposited rather than in a barn yard that has few growing plants. These concentrated barnyards with only a soil base quickly turn to mud and become a nutrient sinkhole. The nutrients leach to the subsoil before mechanical scraping captures them in the spring.
Labor requirements for pasture bale grazing are less during the cold winter period, as all that is required is the fence and possible feeder ring movement. 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 along with the wasted hay adds forage seeds and organic matter back to the field rejuvenating old low yielding fields into highly productive stands after just a few years of bale grazing.
All that is needed for bale grazing is a sod field with water drainage and wind protection. Temporary fencing can be installed if necessary. Water sources can be developed if travel back to a frost proof water source is too far for the cows to walk. Electricity for pumping water and charging the fence can be improvised with solar collector panels and battery storage so few fields are off limits for bale grazing. Even grain stubble fields can be utilized as long as thawing soil conditions are closely monitored to avoid soil compaction. Plans and guidelines for these concepts are available from Michigan State University Extension.
Think your winters are too severe for bale grazing? Bale grazing is often used in most of the Canadian Providences with cow herds ranging up to 800 cows or more where winters are longer and more severe than most of the lower 48 United States.
Bale graziers are innovators and have not stopped at just figuring out ways to make winter feeding less costly. Some are seeding cover crops into wheat, sorghum or corn stubble and grazing the cover crop first and then setting bales on the field to be grazed along with the cover crop regrowth later. Others take a late first cutting of hay in mid-summer, never remove the bales from the field, let the second cutting growth stock pile for winter grazing and bale graze the bales and the stockpiled regrowth that winter. This is a winter feeding system with the following benefits: very little machinery labor as no bales are hauled; a big first cutting yield of low quality hay; a good stockpiled second cutting growth of quality forage that combined with the hay meets the nutritional needs of the gestating beef cow; and a field that will respond very well with yield the following year as a lot of seed will be dropped as well as manure nutrients.
Some bale graziers are even taking this a step further, and are not weaning their calves in the fall! They have begun letting the nursing calf stay on the cow well past seven months of age bale grazing the cow and calf into March. They are finding the calves stay healthy, grow surprisingly well without grain and virtually self-wean themselves by March at which time the cows and calves are finally separated.
Thin body condition cows of four or less, or cows that are heavy milkers are not good candidates for this, but most other healthy cows seem to maintain body condition at acceptable levels to rebreed properly the next summer. One change these farms have made for this system to work is to move their calving date back into May and June. This allows them to calve in sequence with spring grass growth and to give the cows an approximate 60 day dry period before the next calf is born. Research will be needed to test the economics of this system but many times the innovators lead the research.
Partially out of economic necessity and partially out of wanting a better quality of life, beef cow calf innovators are making the bale grazing craze continue to grow and expand its possibilities! For more information on bale grazing contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 231-832-6139 or MSU Extension Beef educator Kable Thurlow at email@example.com or 989-426-7741.