Not only can bale grazing reduce costs and time in the tractor, it can also boost forage growth and overall production.
“The advantages of bale grazing are that you are able to save money and reduce operating cost by lowering yardage, tractor use and removing the need to haul manure,” said Shawn Cabak, livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture. “This management method also allows livestock to return most of the nutrients they consume directly to the landscape, so you will see improvements in the soil in marginal areas, as well as increased forage production and quality.”
Virden-area cattle producer Larry Wagner says he has seen success with bale grazing, both in his pastures and his wallet.
“In the wintertime, through BSE we really had to learn how to cut as many costs as we could and every time you take the tractor out it is costing you money,” Wagner said, who has been bale grazing for the past nine years. “Prior to BSE, the mentality was to sell the biggest calves in the fall. Now the idea is to produce the cheapest calves you can in the fall, because I’ve got time on my side to grow them out for another year. We want to make this business profitable, but also enjoyable so that the next generation wants to do it too.”
The general idea behind bale grazing is to place bales in the pasture in the fall and manage the cattle’s consumption through the winter with electric fencing and pigtails.
“Some producers will even use their rotational grazing paddocks that they use in the summertime and place their bales in those paddocks and move the cattle through those paddocks. So, essentially, it is like rotational grazing in the wintertime,” Cabak said.
Cabak suggest a moderate bale density of 30 to 40 bales per acre, which is consistent with 38-foot spacing in either direction of each bale.
Wagner says he doesn’t necessarily worry about bales per acre but rather places enough bales into his paddock to supply the cows with three to four weeks’ worth of feed at a time.
“I don’t move them on a daily or every-few-day system, I move them every three or four weeks. That way I don’t have to do cross-fencing because my paddocks are already set up a certain size,” Wagner said.
Producers who are considering bale grazing are usually most concerned with the amount of waste that could occur.
“Waste or residue from bale grazing can vary from 10 to 15 per cent depending on the quality and palatability of the feed. However, those nutrients are going back into the soil and back into the landscape,” Cabak said.
Some producers use rings to reduce waste or place the younger calves on a different system, as they tend to exaggerate waste.
“We just found that the younger calves wasted too much and we didn’t get that same waste with the more mature cows. What we do now with the calves is we have feeders. It is still bale grazing, but the feeder slows them down,” Wagner said.
He also recommends sorting out some of the smaller and older cows to avoid having issues with competition at the bales.
So, how many nutrients are really being imported with a bale grazing system? According to Cabak, a substantial amount.
“If you are feeding 30 alfalfa-grass bales per acre at 1,250 pounds per bale and 14 per cent protein, you are bringing in 714 pounds of nitrogen, 64 pounds of phosphorus, 542 pounds of potassium, per acre,” Cabak said.
Cattle will retain 15 to 20 per cent of those nutrients. Leaving behind 80 to 85 per cent on the landscape.
“So, per acre you would be leaving behind 570 pounds of nitrogen, 51 pounds of phosphorus and 434 pounds of potassium,” Cabak said. “We often don’t factor in or figure what the value of those nutrients are when we are bale grazing or feeding on the landscape but those bales at 30 bales an acre, the nutrients that you are bringing in are worth over $500 an acre.”
Wagner says he noticed changes in his pasture from the nutrient importation immediately the following spring.
“I can see an improvement in the ground and grass around where we have bale grazed immediately. The first thing in the spring you will see is the urine spots green up and then the manure and bale grazing areas will come in. The grass is a darker green, lusher and stays lush longer because you have that organic matter that holds the moisture longer.”
Wagner bales mixed grass and alfalfa but says every type of bale, whether straw, greenfeed or hay, will work in this system.
“Each one of them is going to break down and compost differently. Straw takes longer because it is higher in carbon and needs more nitrogen to break it down, whereas grass hay or hay has a more balanced carbon-nitrogen ratio and will break down faster,” Wagner said.
For those who may be interested in incorporating bale grazing into their operations, Wagner recommends finding an area producer who is using similar production methods.
“I’d suggest finding yourself a mentor who is doing what you are interested in. When I started I went to grazing club meetings and just tried to connect with different people who were doing different things,” Wagner said. “There will be people telling you that you can do it and people telling you that you can’t do it, so you just need to figure out what will work for you. But, one thing is for sure, if you don’t have to put fuel in the tractor to feed the cows all winter, you will cut costs.”