Bale grazing concept requires less fuel, distributes manure
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 often 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.
–Michigan State Extension
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News