“I would rather moderately fertilize 40 acres than highly fertilize four acres.”
– LORNE KLEIN
Not every cattle producer has been successful with bale grazing, and an expert in the field was on hand at the recent Manitoba Grazing School to tell livestock producers why.
Lorne Klein, who was raised on a mixed farm at Francis, Saskatchewan, is both a livestock producer and a professional agrologist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture at Weyburn.
“Thirty or 40 years ago people were probably doing a kind of bale grazing,” Klein said. “It’s not really that new. But the guy who was doing it then was probably just lazy. Now it’s about economics. It’s environmentally and it’s economically better. This system is not being done at the expense and well-being of the livestock. And the benefits include the combination of moisture and nutrient conservation on your land.”
When the system is used properly, more nitrogen is deposited on the pasture or cropland where cows winter-graze the bales, saving producers money on fertilizer bills, manure transport, and tractor hours in diesel. But paying attention to bale location, the distance between them and how best to manage the land afterwards can help improve results.
Rhizomatous grasses are best
“Your No. 1 choice for location is on rhizomatous, seeded perennial forage, such as smooth brome grass, quack grass and Kentucky bluegrass,” said Klein. “Your second choice is on annual cropland. And your third choice is native prairie, but don’t do it. You can upset it. Use it on a grass that can really use the nitrogen and the fertility.”
Land with alfalfa is also not recommended, as the legume often does not survive if heavy organic detritus (over four inches) is left behind by bale grazing. On land that is dominated by bunchgrass species, such as crested wheatgrass, meadow bromegrass, and Russian wild ryegrass, “dead spots” can occur when baled straw is used as feed.
Heavy detritus can last for years on the site, and opens opportunities for weed infestation. Bale grazing hay also leaves heavy organic matter in bunchgrass sites, and can leave a stand slightly thinned for years. Rhizomatous species have a greater chance of growing through these layers, and will fill in a site with new shoots produced by their rhizomes.
Bale grazing actually causes a delay in the “spring” date of the field used, leaving a frozen combination of manure mixed with soiled and leftover feed along with a travel area ice pack where cows have fed and walked. This means handling that field carefully the next season.
“You have created a much longer winter condition on that site,” said Klein. “This means delayed grazing there next summer. It needs time to recover, and show you what it can do. That’s the one that I want to be on last the next summer. You will have to stay off that pasture until July 1.”
Feeding on eroded hilltop points is a good location; avoid extreme sandy areas, or near aquifers to avoid leaching nutrients into the water table.
“You kind of pick your spots, and start on the least fertile area on your plot,” said Klein.
Research from Saskatchewan studies which looked at bale grazing on Russian wild rye bunchgrass showed that nitrogen (N) recovery from a 1,385-pound bale yielded nine pounds of N on the pasture over the following two years, said Klein. This equalled a 34 per cent N recovery, while corrall manure hauled out into fields represented only a one per cent recovery.
The potential for new weeds to infiltrate a site is a negative side of bale grazing, but after viewing other ongoing workshops on teaching cattle to eat weeds, Klein wondered if this could also be viewed as a positive event. Bale grazing could also remove some weed problems.
Klein recommends putting out bales in late fall, when tractor driving conditions are easy, with around 25 bales per acre based on a 40-foot centre. This deposits some 75 pounds per acre (unevenly) of nitrogen on that soil for the following spring. Livestock are limited to a three to four-day feed supply at a time, with or without bale feeders, and controlled with electric fencing. Wind protection can be supplied with windbreaks, and a source of water (preferably pumped from dugouts or sloughs to prevent animals breaking through ice), or snow grazing can be utilized.
Klein warned that overusing the system on the same location was a poor translation of the principles.
“I am disappointed to see how many people are feeding on the same five acres repeatedly, over and over again. You now have the worst of both worlds,” said Klein. “Manure is no use on just five acres or 10 acres. You have overfertilized there, and that five acres is destroyed.”
It is also crucial to train cattle to electric fencing beforehand, during the summer months, said Klein. Harrowing on forage pasture was not essential in the spring to distribute the detritus, but for those who chose it for “recreational” reasons, that was fine, he said. For cropland, heavy harrowing was necessary before seeding.
Using sisal costs around 50 to 75 cents more per bale, but the wrap can be left on the bales. Placing the bales on the field site before the string began decomposing was important. Plastic string was best removed in the fall before the grazing period, and net wrap had proven to be surprisingly easy to remove from the pasture after grazing, said Klein.
Possibly the best and most dollar-efficient method is to feed cattle where the bales were ejected onto the field itself during hay-making. Using this “extensive” system of bale grazing, bale density would be two to four bales per acre, and producers would fence areas with a three-to four-week supply of feed.
“That’s maybe the ultimate best method,” said Klein. “I would rather moderately fertilize 40 acres than highly fertilize four acres.”
But to best evaluate what suits a farmer, Klein and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture have created a “Bale-Grazing Calculator”. Available at www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca,the calculator helps producers determine the exact cost of bale grazing with options that include homegrown hay versus purchased hay, moving hay during winter months, cost savings in nutrients, and paying for deliveries. It also gives tips on bale grazing.