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To Bale, or Not to Bale

Grazing vs haying

by Traci Eatherton for Tri-State Livestock News

By Traci Eatherton

Fall fires, lack of winter moisture, and a slow start to the growing season are all leading producers to rework their grazing plans and some are even opting to graze pastures instead of baling them.

Last fall, extension specialists in range management were already leading the advice columns on drought planning for 2021.



With 2020 closing on a dry note, Dan Folske, at North Dakota State University predicted in a November 16, 2020 article that, “Pastures stressed by drought and/or overgrazing this fall more than likely will experience a delay in grazing readiness in 2021.”

Clayton Patten, a third-generation rancher near Broadus, Montana, said he’s turning cows out on land that typically produces a thousand to 1,500 bales.



“Some of mine, I basically elected to not take them off this spring. And I have a couple other fields I intend to graze this winter, instead of haying,” Patten said.

“I don’t even think I will start the equipment,” Patten added.

Lack of winter snow and little moisture this spring has changed the norm on the Patten ranch. Fortunately, Patten understands the need to be flexible with mother nature and works his grazing plan around the current conditions.

“The bottom line is that grazing ‘systems’ thinking can lead one down the road of a fixed-practice approach to grazing management,” Pete Bauman, SDSU Extension Natural Resources and Wildlife Field Specialist Rather shared.

“Producers should think about a system of ‘intensive management,’ where the manager makes informed decisions based on the current conditions, including grazing duration, necessary recovery and desired outcomes. The goal is to avoid decisions driven by the calendar or a fixed schedule of grazing and recovery, regardless of environmental conditions at the time.”

According to SDSU Extension Field Specialist, Heather Gessner, this is not an easy decision, with a lot of things to consider.

Those opting to graze hayfields that they typically put up for winter feed need to do a little pre-planning, according to Gessner.

Water quality and quantity is top priority, Gessner points out. Salinity, sulfates, alkalinity, nitrates, blue-green algae, and more are all factors that can affect water quality, and cause problems, including anthrax outbreaks.

Feed quality and quantity also need to be considered, Gessner points out.

“Producers need to determine how much feed is required to meet the nutritional needs of the cowherd,” Gessner said.

Gessner has created a calculator to help producers decide whether or not to “move the cows or move the feed.” https://extension.sdstate.edu/move-cows-or-move-feed

For those opting to keep cows, supplementing feed may be necessary, and quality vs quantity will be a leading factor.

“When buying hay, make sure you are buying hay with some feed value,” Gessner recommends.

“Many factors can affect the quality of grass hay and alfalfa harvested during the summer. To create a balanced, low-cost ration, you should know the value of the total digestible nutrients (TDN) and protein levels in the forages considered for the diet,” Gessner said.

Producers’ summer grazing and haying plan should also consider long term goals.

“How do the decisions we make today, affect us down the road in 3 years and 5 years,” Gessner said. “If I overgraze it this year, is it a 3-year fix, or a 5-year fix.”

And those opting to go ahead and bale, have to consider the cost of putting up the hay. Determining the true cost of production may be difficult because some costs are more ambiguous than items like seed, fertilizer and chemicals, according to Gessner.

Producers that have kept logs of fuel used during windrowing, raking, baling, loading and hauling, can refer back for the total gallons of fuel used per acre. Labor hours are also a factor, along with other costs, such as twine, wrap, maintenance, etc.

Iowa State Extension publishes a yearly custom rate guide, and it is another resource for those determining the value of their forage production costs. https://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/crops/pdf/a3-10.pdf

While some areas in the midwest are extremely dry, others have been getting some relief with rainfall, according to Matt Reeves, PhD, Research Ecologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, in Missoula, MT.

Reeves shared summaries of the areas based off Fuelecast.net, an interactive map that offers weekly fuel and rangeland production forecasts and history.

“In the Dakotas, very dry soil moisture conditions have led to reductions of yield in the realm of 30 – 50 percent in select watersheds. Localized losses exceeding 70 percent are present but not widespread, and limited to North Dakota. Almost everywhere in ND is experiencing significant losses.

“In South Dakota, the north and eastern parts appear to be the most hard hit with losses about 25 – 35 percent on average. The Black Hills is also expected to see reduced yields of 15 – 20 percent but with ample standing dead from a good grass crop last year, wildfire remains a concern.

“In Montana the NE corner and central portions are the hardest hit with losses ranging from 30 – 50 percent, especially near Glasgow and Grass Range. The greater losses are not as widespread as in the Dakotas, however, and overall Montana is exhibiting flat to slightly negative yield conditions (5 – 10 percent).

“Projections for Colorado (beginning in March) started out worse in the eastern part of the state but due to some recent moisture events especially on the front range, things have improved. However, the western part of the state could see yields depressed as much as 50 – 65 percent in some area with overall losses hovering near 25 percent, especially near the New Mexico State line.

“Wyoming appears to be a brighter spot overall with yields at or above normal with a few exceptions along the Colorado border.”

Bottom line, producers are making tough decisions this year, and extensionsspecialists and government programs are available to help.

As drought conditions worsen, livestock producers can utilize feed assistance from the Livestock Forage Program (LFP) administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (USDA FSA), Gessner said.

“One of the improvements to the current farm bill was the addition of funded disaster programs,” Gessner added. “These programs provide funds to producers much faster and in a better manner than the ad hoc programs of the past. The LFP is one of those programs.”

While Patten hasn’t decided to sell cattle yet, he credits programs like LFP for getting producers through difficult times.

“I’m thankful for the programs,” Patten said. “They are necessary.”

The LFP fact sheet can be found at https://www.fsa.usda.gov/Assets/USDA-FSA-Public/usdafiles/FactSheets/livestock_forage_program_lfp-fact_sheet.pdf.


Limited rainfall has stunted hay growth in some areas, causing ranchers to consider grazing their hayfields instead of cutting them. Photo by Traci Eatherton

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