Letting cows feed themselves in winter is a good way to save on winter feed costs.
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Harvested forage is generally used in northern climates when snow covers pastures, but time and expense can be saved if you don’t have to haul hay in from the fields and then back out to the cows.
Windrow grazing, where forages (particularly annual forages) are cut and left in windrows for grazing in the fall and winter, has become popular, but bale grazing is gaining popularity, as it provides economic and environmental advantages over some traditional feeding methods, says Lorne Klein, a Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture grazing and forage specialist.
A few decades back, folks bale grazing their cattle were often considered poor managers; not so anymore. “Particularly in the past 10 years, stockmen have begun to realize the benefits of this method,” he says.
Advantages of bale grazing
Many early bale-grazing programs involved hauling bales to a specific site, placing them in a grid pattern, and allocating a certain number of bales every 3-5 days by using electric wire. “But, the ultimate cost-saver is to graze bales on the spot where they’re dropped, rather than haul them somewhere,” Klein says.
Windrow grazing keeps plants at the stage of maturity they were cut, rather than becoming over-mature if they’re standing all fall and winter. Plus, bales do a better job of holding nutrient quality of forage (less weather damage), and are easier for cattle to access after heavy snow.
“Snow is a non-issue when bale grazing. Cows are large and strong; even if there’s a snowbank, they push through it,” Klein says. “And when the snow melts toward spring, as long as the ground is frozen, there’s no damage to the soil/plants.”
Some management experts advise ranchers against haymaking because of the expense, but Klein argues that most of the cost of hay isn’t in the cutting and baling.
“It’s what you do with that bale afterward – hauling it in and hauling it back out, or to another location. All winter long, you’re starting a tractor every day to move and feed bales. And, if you feed cattle in a pen, manure must be hauled out. That probably doubles the cost of the hay,” he says.
But, leaving bales in the field minimizes the cost, he says. “Some producers bale graze 1,000 cows, and move very few bales. The bales stay where they’re made, and the soil fertility stays right there, too,” Klein says.
Extensive research at the Western Beef Development Centre in Saskatchewan compared bale grazing to feeding in a corral and hauling manure out. It showed huge benefits in letting cows eat bales in the field.
“When you feed in a confined area and haul manure to spread on a pasture or hayfield, you recover 1% of the original nitrogen content of those bales,” Klein says. “When you bale graze on fields at the proper rate – at a stocking density where you enhance vegetation – you recover 34% of the original nitrogen in the bale. We have photos of old seeded pastures that now look brand new, because we’ve imported these nutrients.”
Even hauling bales to a pasture that needs fertilizer is more effective and cheaper than hauling manure out or using commercial fertilizer, Klein adds. The results and benefits last longer because there’s a combination of nutrients and litter from manure and wasted hay.