Beef cattle producers have traditionally grazed cows through the summer months and then fed hay rations in confinement settings through the non-grazing days. It is a logical system that usually allows farmers to deal best with regions of heavy snowfall, access to barn shelter, automatic waterers and can be relatively time efficient. Another concept of feeding cows through the winter is to feed out in either hay or pasture fields. This concept is not necessarily new but is gaining popularity.
This summer, Michigan State University Extension educators conducted pasture walks on three western and central UP farms demonstrating varying methods of this feeding strategy. Three general methods seem to be the most popular: utilizing bale feeders, rolling out the hay and bale grazing. Each method carries its own advantages and disadvantages regarding wasted hay, impact on standing forage, mineral nutrients added to soils, soil health implications and labor requirements.
Placing hay into feeders has been shown to minimize feed waste and feeder design can have a significant impact to the degree of that loss. Rolling bales out on the ground allows valuable nutrients from animal manure and hay waste to be more evenly distributed and can offer greater improvement of yields as opposed to other feeding methods. Also, feed wastage can be minimized with bale unrollers that place feed in narrower, higher mounds. Bale grazing is a method in which bales are spaced across a feeding area in advance to winter-feeding. Usually bales are offered a small number at any given time with electric fencing. Bale feeders are usually not used in this method. This feeding method can offer reduced machinery and labor during the feeding period. However, because hay rings are frequently not used and access may be allowed to enough bales to last for several days, this feeding method has potential for excessive hay wastage. All of the feeding methods offer advantages of minimizing the need to haul manure and improving soil health.
Feeding hay on fields during the winter months has many advantages and more farmers are using this method. Each farmer can weigh the benefits and drawbacks from feeding methods and manage accordingly.