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Bale grazing & windrow grazing lets cows feed themselves

Letting cows feed themselves during winter is one of the best ways to save on winter feed costs. Some form of harvested forage is generally used in winter climates when snow covers the pastures, but a lot of time and expense can be saved by not hauling hay in from fields and then haul it back out to cattle. Windrow grazing, especially annual forages, has become popular, and bale grazing is starting to gain attention. Bale grazing and windrow or swath grazing both provide some economic and environmental advantages over some traditional feeding methods.

Nancy Peterson and her husband and son raise cattle in western Nebraska and started bale grazing two years ago. “We calve out about 380 pairs and summer 280 pairs. We no-till about 2,300 acres of farm ground. This region is marginal farm ground. The soil is very sandy and we only get 14- to 16-inches of precipitation annually. This ranch didn’t have as much pasture as we had winter feed, so we’ve spent many years trying to match our resources with a management system that makes sense. We do a lot of swath grazing,” she says.

“We retain ownership on our calves, and last year we backgrounded the steers on sorghum swaths and fed just enough distillers grain to get a gain of 2 pounds per day on these steers – based on feed samples from the sorghum. We felt this was a little iffy, in the swath, but the steers gained 1.96 pounds per day during winter,” Peterson notes.



About 1,000 acres of their farm ground is 26 miles from their headquarters. “Since we no-till, and forages are a crucial part of the crop rotation, and we hate baling, we generally move livestock up to that part of the farm and swath graze. This works well, except not all the fields have stock water. Every now and then we have to put up hay on a field that doesn’t have water, since we can’t swath graze it. So we put the calves on the nearest field that has water – and move the bales into that field for them to graze,” Peterson explains.

“We put out enough bales for a week’s worth of grazing. It would probably be better to do it more frequently, but the reason we did it only once a week is that we had no way to plug in the tractor 26 miles from home, and didn’t want to take the tractor up there more often than once a week,” she notes.



“The thing we like best about bale grazing, partly because we are no-till farmers, is that it’s a wonderful treatment for poor ground. It really increases the organic matter and soil fertility. It stops the erosion from sandy washouts and blowouts. We’ll continue to do some bale grazing and swath grazing on land we think needs improving or wherever we have a problem area,” Peterson says.

The Petersons planted their next crop on the bale-grazed field, and it worked well despite litter/waste from the bales. “It really improved the ground. We saw better yields following the bale grazing. And this year, when we combined our wheat where we bale grazed two years ago you could see where every bale was. The wheat was thicker and the heads bigger – in a big circle about twice the diameter of the bale,” she says.

“Hay waste is an issue, and I think you sacrifice a little cow condition because they crowd in and the big cows eat more than their share. Towards the end of the week, the younger cows aren’t able to get to the really good feed. We were giving them some protein in the form of distillers grain and felt we did all right, but for us the swath grazing is better, regarding waste and cow condition,” she says.

Bale grazing is best, however, for improving poor ground and “fixing” the worst areas, she notes. Even though there is more waste, Peterson sees this as a positive rather than a negative because of how it improves the land.

“When we first started swath grazing in 2005, we used electric fence and limited the amount of swaths, but we don’t do that anymore. The cattle don’t waste enough to warrant limiting them or justify the labor to move the fence on frozen ground. We just turn them out on the swaths,” she says.

“We used to winter our cows on swath grazing until we were able to rent some cornstalks a lot closer to home. I was grateful for the Canadian research and information because when you get a foot of snow you wonder if you are doing the right thing. But the cows do fine. You may not be able to see the swaths, but the cows know where they are.” Canadian research has demonstrated that cows will root through the snow to get at swaths.

Letting cows feed themselves during winter is one of the best ways to save on winter feed costs. Some form of harvested forage is generally used in winter climates when snow covers the pastures, but a lot of time and expense can be saved by not hauling hay in from fields and then haul it back out to cattle. Windrow grazing, especially annual forages, has become popular, and bale grazing is starting to gain attention. Bale grazing and windrow or swath grazing both provide some economic and environmental advantages over some traditional feeding methods.

Nancy Peterson and her husband and son raise cattle in western Nebraska and started bale grazing two years ago. “We calve out about 380 pairs and summer 280 pairs. We no-till about 2,300 acres of farm ground. This region is marginal farm ground. The soil is very sandy and we only get 14- to 16-inches of precipitation annually. This ranch didn’t have as much pasture as we had winter feed, so we’ve spent many years trying to match our resources with a management system that makes sense. We do a lot of swath grazing,” she says.

“We retain ownership on our calves, and last year we backgrounded the steers on sorghum swaths and fed just enough distillers grain to get a gain of 2 pounds per day on these steers – based on feed samples from the sorghum. We felt this was a little iffy, in the swath, but the steers gained 1.96 pounds per day during winter,” Peterson notes.

About 1,000 acres of their farm ground is 26 miles from their headquarters. “Since we no-till, and forages are a crucial part of the crop rotation, and we hate baling, we generally move livestock up to that part of the farm and swath graze. This works well, except not all the fields have stock water. Every now and then we have to put up hay on a field that doesn’t have water, since we can’t swath graze it. So we put the calves on the nearest field that has water – and move the bales into that field for them to graze,” Peterson explains.

“We put out enough bales for a week’s worth of grazing. It would probably be better to do it more frequently, but the reason we did it only once a week is that we had no way to plug in the tractor 26 miles from home, and didn’t want to take the tractor up there more often than once a week,” she notes.

“The thing we like best about bale grazing, partly because we are no-till farmers, is that it’s a wonderful treatment for poor ground. It really increases the organic matter and soil fertility. It stops the erosion from sandy washouts and blowouts. We’ll continue to do some bale grazing and swath grazing on land we think needs improving or wherever we have a problem area,” Peterson says.

The Petersons planted their next crop on the bale-grazed field, and it worked well despite litter/waste from the bales. “It really improved the ground. We saw better yields following the bale grazing. And this year, when we combined our wheat where we bale grazed two years ago you could see where every bale was. The wheat was thicker and the heads bigger – in a big circle about twice the diameter of the bale,” she says.

“Hay waste is an issue, and I think you sacrifice a little cow condition because they crowd in and the big cows eat more than their share. Towards the end of the week, the younger cows aren’t able to get to the really good feed. We were giving them some protein in the form of distillers grain and felt we did all right, but for us the swath grazing is better, regarding waste and cow condition,” she says.

Bale grazing is best, however, for improving poor ground and “fixing” the worst areas, she notes. Even though there is more waste, Peterson sees this as a positive rather than a negative because of how it improves the land.

“When we first started swath grazing in 2005, we used electric fence and limited the amount of swaths, but we don’t do that anymore. The cattle don’t waste enough to warrant limiting them or justify the labor to move the fence on frozen ground. We just turn them out on the swaths,” she says.

“We used to winter our cows on swath grazing until we were able to rent some cornstalks a lot closer to home. I was grateful for the Canadian research and information because when you get a foot of snow you wonder if you are doing the right thing. But the cows do fine. You may not be able to see the swaths, but the cows know where they are.” Canadian research has demonstrated that cows will root through the snow to get at swaths.

Letting cows feed themselves during winter is one of the best ways to save on winter feed costs. Some form of harvested forage is generally used in winter climates when snow covers the pastures, but a lot of time and expense can be saved by not hauling hay in from fields and then haul it back out to cattle. Windrow grazing, especially annual forages, has become popular, and bale grazing is starting to gain attention. Bale grazing and windrow or swath grazing both provide some economic and environmental advantages over some traditional feeding methods.

Nancy Peterson and her husband and son raise cattle in western Nebraska and started bale grazing two years ago. “We calve out about 380 pairs and summer 280 pairs. We no-till about 2,300 acres of farm ground. This region is marginal farm ground. The soil is very sandy and we only get 14- to 16-inches of precipitation annually. This ranch didn’t have as much pasture as we had winter feed, so we’ve spent many years trying to match our resources with a management system that makes sense. We do a lot of swath grazing,” she says.

“We retain ownership on our calves, and last year we backgrounded the steers on sorghum swaths and fed just enough distillers grain to get a gain of 2 pounds per day on these steers – based on feed samples from the sorghum. We felt this was a little iffy, in the swath, but the steers gained 1.96 pounds per day during winter,” Peterson notes.

About 1,000 acres of their farm ground is 26 miles from their headquarters. “Since we no-till, and forages are a crucial part of the crop rotation, and we hate baling, we generally move livestock up to that part of the farm and swath graze. This works well, except not all the fields have stock water. Every now and then we have to put up hay on a field that doesn’t have water, since we can’t swath graze it. So we put the calves on the nearest field that has water – and move the bales into that field for them to graze,” Peterson explains.

“We put out enough bales for a week’s worth of grazing. It would probably be better to do it more frequently, but the reason we did it only once a week is that we had no way to plug in the tractor 26 miles from home, and didn’t want to take the tractor up there more often than once a week,” she notes.

“The thing we like best about bale grazing, partly because we are no-till farmers, is that it’s a wonderful treatment for poor ground. It really increases the organic matter and soil fertility. It stops the erosion from sandy washouts and blowouts. We’ll continue to do some bale grazing and swath grazing on land we think needs improving or wherever we have a problem area,” Peterson says.

The Petersons planted their next crop on the bale-grazed field, and it worked well despite litter/waste from the bales. “It really improved the ground. We saw better yields following the bale grazing. And this year, when we combined our wheat where we bale grazed two years ago you could see where every bale was. The wheat was thicker and the heads bigger – in a big circle about twice the diameter of the bale,” she says.

“Hay waste is an issue, and I think you sacrifice a little cow condition because they crowd in and the big cows eat more than their share. Towards the end of the week, the younger cows aren’t able to get to the really good feed. We were giving them some protein in the form of distillers grain and felt we did all right, but for us the swath grazing is better, regarding waste and cow condition,” she says.

Bale grazing is best, however, for improving poor ground and “fixing” the worst areas, she notes. Even though there is more waste, Peterson sees this as a positive rather than a negative because of how it improves the land.

“When we first started swath grazing in 2005, we used electric fence and limited the amount of swaths, but we don’t do that anymore. The cattle don’t waste enough to warrant limiting them or justify the labor to move the fence on frozen ground. We just turn them out on the swaths,” she says.

“We used to winter our cows on swath grazing until we were able to rent some cornstalks a lot closer to home. I was grateful for the Canadian research and information because when you get a foot of snow you wonder if you are doing the right thing. But the cows do fine. You may not be able to see the swaths, but the cows know where they are.” Canadian research has demonstrated that cows will root through the snow to get at swaths.

Letting cows feed themselves during winter is one of the best ways to save on winter feed costs. Some form of harvested forage is generally used in winter climates when snow covers the pastures, but a lot of time and expense can be saved by not hauling hay in from fields and then haul it back out to cattle. Windrow grazing, especially annual forages, has become popular, and bale grazing is starting to gain attention. Bale grazing and windrow or swath grazing both provide some economic and environmental advantages over some traditional feeding methods.

Nancy Peterson and her husband and son raise cattle in western Nebraska and started bale grazing two years ago. “We calve out about 380 pairs and summer 280 pairs. We no-till about 2,300 acres of farm ground. This region is marginal farm ground. The soil is very sandy and we only get 14- to 16-inches of precipitation annually. This ranch didn’t have as much pasture as we had winter feed, so we’ve spent many years trying to match our resources with a management system that makes sense. We do a lot of swath grazing,” she says.

“We retain ownership on our calves, and last year we backgrounded the steers on sorghum swaths and fed just enough distillers grain to get a gain of 2 pounds per day on these steers – based on feed samples from the sorghum. We felt this was a little iffy, in the swath, but the steers gained 1.96 pounds per day during winter,” Peterson notes.

About 1,000 acres of their farm ground is 26 miles from their headquarters. “Since we no-till, and forages are a crucial part of the crop rotation, and we hate baling, we generally move livestock up to that part of the farm and swath graze. This works well, except not all the fields have stock water. Every now and then we have to put up hay on a field that doesn’t have water, since we can’t swath graze it. So we put the calves on the nearest field that has water – and move the bales into that field for them to graze,” Peterson explains.

“We put out enough bales for a week’s worth of grazing. It would probably be better to do it more frequently, but the reason we did it only once a week is that we had no way to plug in the tractor 26 miles from home, and didn’t want to take the tractor up there more often than once a week,” she notes.

“The thing we like best about bale grazing, partly because we are no-till farmers, is that it’s a wonderful treatment for poor ground. It really increases the organic matter and soil fertility. It stops the erosion from sandy washouts and blowouts. We’ll continue to do some bale grazing and swath grazing on land we think needs improving or wherever we have a problem area,” Peterson says.

The Petersons planted their next crop on the bale-grazed field, and it worked well despite litter/waste from the bales. “It really improved the ground. We saw better yields following the bale grazing. And this year, when we combined our wheat where we bale grazed two years ago you could see where every bale was. The wheat was thicker and the heads bigger – in a big circle about twice the diameter of the bale,” she says.

“Hay waste is an issue, and I think you sacrifice a little cow condition because they crowd in and the big cows eat more than their share. Towards the end of the week, the younger cows aren’t able to get to the really good feed. We were giving them some protein in the form of distillers grain and felt we did all right, but for us the swath grazing is better, regarding waste and cow condition,” she says.

Bale grazing is best, however, for improving poor ground and “fixing” the worst areas, she notes. Even though there is more waste, Peterson sees this as a positive rather than a negative because of how it improves the land.

“When we first started swath grazing in 2005, we used electric fence and limited the amount of swaths, but we don’t do that anymore. The cattle don’t waste enough to warrant limiting them or justify the labor to move the fence on frozen ground. We just turn them out on the swaths,” she says.

“We used to winter our cows on swath grazing until we were able to rent some cornstalks a lot closer to home. I was grateful for the Canadian research and information because when you get a foot of snow you wonder if you are doing the right thing. But the cows do fine. You may not be able to see the swaths, but the cows know where they are.” Canadian research has demonstrated that cows will root through the snow to get at swaths.


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