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Bale grazing can help rejuvenate soil and may save time on the farm
Iowa Correspondent

NEWBERRY, Mich. –Bale grazing vs. feeding cattle on a pad is becoming a more popular time- and cost-saving option for producers feeding cattle in the field, according to beef experts.
“Bale grazing is the distribution and feeding of bales throughout a field in the winter or low-forage growth months,” said Michelle Sweeten, Michigan State University Luce County extension forage and livestock educator in Newberry, Mich.
“There are a lot of ways to accomplish this: grid patterns, unrolling bales, or ‘hay bombing’ (placing bales closer together to create a layer of compost over the field),” she added. “How bales are placed depends on field goals.”
Nick Roy, University of Kentucky Adair County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Columbia, Ky., said he first started working with local farmers regarding bale grazing in 2015.
“It’s been in recent years that interest (in bale grazing) has grown.” He added that farmers have also been asking more questions about the practice. 
He agreed with Sweeten regarding winter feeding, adding that before winter feeding begins, access to hay for cattle is restricted, using temporary electric fencing.
“When the farmer wishes to begin feeding, access to only a few days worth of hay are provided to the cattle,” he said. “As cattle consume the bale(s), the temporary electric fence is moved to provide access to the next bale(s)”
Denise Schwab, Iowa State University extension beef specialist, said bale grazing is often done on hay fields or corn stalk residue fields, but is also good for thin and overgrazed pastures.
“For example, maybe an operation sets the bales in 10 rows of five bales each about 30-50 feet apart,” she said. “Cattle have access to two or three bales only until they are consumed, then a fence is moved and they get another two or three bales (or whatever is needed for the size of the cow herd).”
She said this also allows the producer to do all the set-up in the fall before bad weather sets in, and then just move the fence during the winter as cows need more feed.
“It is also much easier to set temporary fence posts prior to the ground freezing hard,” she said. “It removes the need to start a tractor every couple days to provide feed throughout the winter, gets the feed moving done before there is a lot of snow or ice buildup on the bales – and typically in much nicer weather.”
She said this also reduces the need for manure hauling because the cows naturally spread the manure out on the field instead of in a dry lot.
“The number of bales to provide is roughly based on what the cow herd would consume in a few days, and can vary,” she added, “but I’d probably shoot for what they can consume in about three days. We want the cows to clean up the feed allotment before offering more bales.”
With bale grazing, Roy said while consuming winter feed across the entire field, cattle distribute their nutrients across the field more evenly, which contributes to good soil health.
By contrast, he said feeding hay on a pad results in nutrients accumulated around the feeding pad.
“While the manure can be scraped and applied back to fields, most of the nitrogen and potassium excreted by cattle is in the urine,” he said. “Bale grazing has the potential to put more nutrients back into the soil.”
From 2018 to 2020, Michigan State University extension conducted soil health research on a northern Michigan beef farm, and compared bale-grazed areas to non-bale grazed areas, Sweeten said.
“The study showed an increase in soil respiration rates (used to estimate nutrient cycling in the soil, and the ability of the soil to sustain plant growth and biological activity),” she said. “This is an indication of healthy microbial activity, a key component of soil health.”
She said feeding hay across the fields allows the nutrients from the hay to stay on or be imported onto the farm: “Soil health is improved by increasing the organic matter, and feeding the microorganisms that are present in the pastures.”
She added, “It is important to stress that bale grazing areas should be rotated to new areas each year to prevent over-application of the manure/hay compost. To minimize animal damages, do not feed on unfrozen ground, especially new seedings.”
From an agricultural economics standpoint, the first aspect regarding bale grazing most economists will address is labor savings, which is associated with equipment savings, said Andrew P. Griffith, University of Tennessee associate professor of agricultural economics.
“It takes considerably less time to set several bales of hay out in a field at one time than it does to feed cattle every day or enough for one week,” he said. “In other words, the number of hours to feed with a tractor is reduced significantly, which also leads to fuel savings.
“There is a trade off in that temporary fence must be moved on a regular basis, but if it is set up appropriately, then it is less labor than feeding hay through the traditional methods,” he added.
Secondly, he said, the next savings most economists will discuss is the reduction in fertilizer needs.
“On the same note, wasted hay provides organic matter and typically improved water-holding capacity in the soil,” he added. “This wasted hay is spread out over a greater portion of the pasture than just a feeding pad.”
Thirdly, he said, in regions where the ground does not stay frozen all winter, setting out hay during the dry months of fall reduces the quantity of ground torn up by driving a tractor over wet soils.
“Ruts in a pasture typically have to be smoothed and reseeded, while some of them have nothing done to them, and simply have poor forage production,” he said. “Lastly, most (economists) will discuss the increased forage production due to better nutrient distribution.”