Many producers have taken steps to extend their grazing period, and bale grazing is proving to be a popular choice.
Bales can be purchased or grown on farm and placed strategically in cells or ‘bale pods.’ In some cases, cattle feed on bales directly where they are dropped from the baler, but in most situations, bales are placed on sites needing additional fertility or near water or shelter.
Producers typically set bales on their round sides, 35 to 40 feet apart, and remove twine or netwrap prior to allowing cattle access to the area. Some farmers try to source bales that are wrapped in sisal twine, which breaks down over time making followup twine management easy.
Any residual forage left ungrazed after cattle have moved on isn’t a waste, but rather a source of nutrients for subsequent forage crops, litter to help increase water-holding capacity and water infiltration of the soil, and a forage species seed bank.
The number of days producers choose to allow their cattle access to a pod of bales will depend on how many bales are placed, quality of the feed, body condition score of the cattle, weather, and the farmer’s personal goals and management style. Some producers will move cattle every two to five days, while others will allow cattle access for 20 or 30 days of feed at a time, or even longer.
It’s important to feed test and weigh bales placed in grazing areas to ensure cattle have a relatively level plane of nutrition and avoid a ‘rumen roller-coaster’ caused by too much or too little feed. Producers may use hay, greenfeed, or even straw with supplementation, however, feed testing is the key to ensuring a balanced ration is achieved and potential toxicity issues are avoided.
Bale grazing can improve perennial pastures and even be used to reduce brush encroachment; however, it is not suited for all sites. Avoid placing bales on environmentally sensitive sites such as wetlands or creeks. Do not bale graze on native rangeland to prevent introduction of invasive or weedy species that can upset the balance of natural biodiversity or reduce the overall ecological integrity of a site.
Monitor snow conditions closely. Snow should not be used as the sole water source for lactating cows, freshly weaned calves, or cattle with a body condition score of 2.5 or lower. A dwindling snowpack can cause animals’ stock water demands to spike, even when other water is available. Excess snow can cause cattle to expend extra energy to access feed, something that should be avoided for cattle groups that require higher levels of management such as calves, young cows, or thin cattle.
It’s always important to have a backup plan with any extensive wintering system and bale grazing is no different. A prolonged harsh winter can increase the need for additional shelter and better-quality forage or supplementation for animals in any condition. Producers must manage and closely monitor cattle to ensure they stay healthy, remain in good body condition, and have access to forage that is of adequate quality, as well as access to water and shelter.
Like any beef cattle production practice, bale grazing requires planning and management.