Bale grazing isn’t new to some cattle producers with ranches in Canada and the northern Plains, who have used the winter feeding program for a number of years. However, it is moderately new to the Southeast, with an on-farm research project in Kentucky showing it can be done in the region.
For the past three winters Fred Thomas of Columbia, Ky., has been feeding his herd of 35 cattle without starting a tractor during the coldest months of the year. Instead he rotates his herd onto new bales and stockpiled grass twice a week with strategically placed hot wire fences.
Thomas got interested in bale grazing five years ago after reading an article online about the experience ranchers in other countries, such as Canada, had with the method. A few years later he was approached by University of Kentucky Extension researchers who were looking for cow-calf producers interested in trying out bale grazing.
Before bale grazing Thomas was feeding his cows hay with a tractor on a regular basis in bale feeders on some bottom ground that would get muddy during the winter. “My cows were in mud from October or November through April and even into May sometimes,” Thomas says. “I had a pretty serious problem.”
Thomas was relatively new to raising cattle, as he’d just purchased his first three breeding heifers in 2007 and grew his herd to 23 cows by 2015, so he was still learning the ropes.
Kentucky farmer Fred Thomas (center) speaking with Jeff Lehmkuhler, University of Kentucky Extension beef specialist (left), and Nick Roy, Adair County agriculture and natural resources Extension agent (right), about the progress he's made with bale grazing.
Ready for a change in feeding systems, Thomas worked with Jeff Lehmkuhler, University of Kentucky Extension beef specialist, and Nick Roy, Adair County agriculture and natural resources Extension agent, on a bale grazing plan that moved his herd onto hilltop pastures for the winter.
“We deal with a lot of precipitation down here, and our hay feeding areas can get pretty muddy,” Lehmkuhler explains.
Some Kentucky producers have put in stack pads consisting of geotextile material and gravel to help limit mud. However, on rented ground this can be difficult because landowners might not want to put in the investment.
“Fred works hard to minimize costs on his farm and maximize gains. In past work with Fred, he did have some portions of the farm that were low in fertility, so those were the areas we targeted,” Roy says.
“The idea of moving those manure nutrients back up on the ridge was welcomed by Fred,” Lehmkuhler says of the bale grazing plan.
The first winter, 2015/16, bales were placed about 25' apart from the center of each bale. This put a dense amount of bales and hoof traffic on a small area of pasture, roughly 75 bales on 2.5 acres.
With 40-50 inches of precipitation annually in Kentucky, spacing bales as closely as in other areas proved to do too much damage to the ground.
Cattle get access to a new bale grazing paddock every three to four days when a hot wire fence is moved.
“That was pretty extreme,” Thomas says. “The following year I spread them out a lot further.”
The second winter, 2016/17, bales were placed at least double the distance at 50' apart. This made moving fencing a little more difficult because there was twice as much ground to cover. However, by the second season cows were learning the system and were easier to move into new paddocks to graze bales.
Thomas’ main takeaway from the second year was to try and stockpile more forage in the pasture he plans to bale graze so paddocks could better handle cattle. This results in cows spreading out to more evenly distribute manure. “I was looking for that (organic fertilization) because these fields were weak,” Thomas says.
The third year, 2017/18, used a similar grazing plan as year two and had similar positive outcomes. Thomas has observed his electric bill decreased $30 per month in the winter when he stopped plugging in two tractors. He also estimates his fuel bill for diesel has gone down significantly because he doesn’t need a tractor to feed cattle in the winter.
Spacing bales 50' or more away helped limit the amount of ground that was torn up and soil compaction on pastures that were bale grazed.
In the system, cows have access to four bales of hay at a time and typically clean them up within three to four days before having access to new hay. Four bale rings are also moved each time to help limit hay waste. The result has been better use of hay and a more manageable amount of manure on paddocks.
Thomas estimates his hay use has dropped by 32%. He’d previously feed 125 round bales each winter when running cows on the bottoms. Now he uses 85 bales of fescue-mix hay weighing approximately 900 lb. to 1,000 lb. each. Additionally, he still feeds 2 lb. to 3 lb. of mixed grains per animal every day or every other day, depending on cow body condition and weather.
Cattle are being fed less hay with bale grazing and it has also helped evenly distribute manure around pastures to aid in soil fertility.
Soil tests after the second year showed potassium levels rising from 75 to 200 lb. per acre. Phosphorus has also come up from 20 to 25. This increase resulted in a $21-per acre savings in fertilizer.
“During the worst parts of winter we can see damage to existing forage stands, so it seems best to select areas that already need some improvements in terms of needing reseeding,” Roy says.
Bale grazing could be a good option for someone looking to transition from Kentcky-31 fescue to a novel endophyte, or it could work well for a crop field using a cover crop rotation.
Lehmkuhler already had some of his own experience with bale grazing after running cattle a few winters prior with a partner, and he has been pleased with the results he has witnessed on Thomas’ farm. However, he believes there are many ways to feed cattle during the winter.
For instance, unrolling hay with a tractor or truck might deliver similar results for feeding hay and spreading out the manure.
“In essence, it is the same thing with controlling intake,” Lehmkuhler says. “The difference with unrolling is you’re putting out hay every day or every other day with a tractor or truck.” Also, there is potentially more hay waste from cattle laying on unrolled bales.
Thomas shares his first year of bale grazing in the following video:
Footage from Thomas' second year of bale grazing can be seen in the following video: