Organic Broadcaster

Study examines true cost, benefits of winter bale grazing
By John Mesko, MOSES

Soil health has been dominating the sustainability conversation lately. For graziers, that topic has focused on winter bale grazing, touted by many as a great way to add nutrients to the soil through spent hay litter left behind after the cattle are done grazing. In recent years, we’ve learned cattle do fine when we ask them to walk out to the pasture get their winter feed, but the soil does much better when we simply allow the spent hay litter, manure, and urine to recycle onsite together.

I’ve heard many presenters at winter conferences make comments to the effect, “With what bale grazing can do for your soils, you can afford hay at almost any price.” At these events, I’ve often asked if anyone has any data which can reinforce those claims, but, none has been produced.

In the north country, making hay is an essential component of producing cattle on grass, and the cost of winter feed is generally considered the largest expense for most graziers. The need to make that feed on the farm often limits the size of the grazing herd. If hay could be affordably outsourced, grass-fed herds could grow larger as most or all of a farm’s land could be grazed.

When considering the need to expand operations to bring in the next generation or transition to a farm successor, one of the best ways is to either add an enterprise onto the existing land base, or expand an enterprise. If we can demonstrate that purchased hay, affordably brought in from off the farm, can allow more animals to be grazed on the same farm, then we can see where farms can expand productivity without expanding land base. If grass-fed herds could grow in size, then expanding enterprises to absorb the next generation into farming, or adding a grazing livestock component to a soil-health-building farming protocol, would result in added sustainability benefits.

In an attempt to know the true cost and benefit of purchased hay in a bale grazing scenario, we must somehow measure the benefit of that hay litter on the pasture in subsequent years. After taking all costs and benefits into consideration, what is the value of spent hay litter from purchased hay? How much can farmers afford to pay for hay to be brought on to their farm to be used in winter bale grazing?

A couple of years ago, I set out to assess the value of spent hay litter remaining onsite after winter bale grazing on my farm, Lighthouse Farm in central Minnesota. At the time, our herd of grass-fed beef was pushing the limits of our farm’s capacity for pasture and reserved grassland for making hay. Our cattle numbers were increasing.

In considering our options for expansion, I wondered if the good relationships I had built with neighbors could be parlayed into a reliable source for purchased hay. Being a cost-conscious farmer, I knew relying on purchased hay would increase our costs. But, I also knew from experience that bringing nutrients onto the farm in the form of purchased hay would increase our productivity over time as well, which would allow us to graze even more animals.

Cattle graze haybales in the field at Lighthouse Farm in Central Minnesota.

After hearing data-less admonitions to “Just Bale Graze,” I developed an on-farm research project I called the Minnesota Bale Grazing Study to determine the change in productivity on the site after bale grazing, and by extension, the true value of purchased hay. Obviously, the most sustainable beef production model would likely not include purchased hay being brought in from off the farm. However, many soils that are being converted to grazing lands from row crop production are depleted and need to be rejuvenated in order to reach a sustainable system. In order to boost productivity quickly, and to be able to produce enough beef to be economically viable, some form of purchased hay may be the best course, at least in the short term.

After the first year of a two-year study, the initial results of the Minnesota Bale Grazing Study are promising. Baseline soil tests taken in the spring of 2016 on Lighthouse Farm report average soil fertility and soil health. Forage tests from 2015 hay production and 2016 hay production are in the table below.

While forage quality improvements from 2015 to 2016 are impressive, it should be noted that the 2016 samples were taken shortly after the hay was made, and the 2015 samples were taken a few months after baling.

Photo above taken in May shows litter from bale grazing December ‘16 through March ‘17. Below, areas where cattle grazed in winter ‘16 continue to show lush regrowth in May ‘17.

The bale grazing site was grazed from Sept. 5, 2016 through Sept. 25, 2016 (20 days) by 14 yearling steers and heifers. Calves averaged 725 lbs. at the time they were turned out, and after 20 days averaged 755 lbs. The average daily rate of gain was 1.75 lbs. This number is lower than what we normally achieve on our farm. We think part of this is due to the regrowth being too short to really allow for efficient grazing, and we think part of this is due to the fact that we split the yearlings off from the rest of the herd, and there was a day or two of stress on the yearlings from being separated. They may have delayed getting right at grazing immediately. Subsequent grazing this year will help us determine the impact of these effects.

Lessons Learned

  1. We put bales out in 2015-16 too far apart. In the spring, the hay litter was not covering completely, which has resulted in spotty regrowth. I expected the cattle to scatter the hay further than they did. In the winter of 2016-2017, we put the bales much closer together, averaging only 8 feet or so between bales. Also, we fed more bales at each feeding. This had the effect of scattering more hay faster, as the cattle went from bale to bale, looking for the best hay to devour first.

  2. In some instances, we used small square bales as well. These need some kind of feeder to prevent waste. We’ve actually used round bale feeders for feeding square bales, which works well.

  3. We’ve put out as much as 3 weeks of feed at a time with little “wastage.” Could an entire winter’s worth of hay be fed at once? That won’t be a part of this study, but it would make a change in how overwintering cattle could be handled.

Preparing for Bale Grazing

The smart move is to purchase winter feed right out of your neighbors’ fields as they are making it—when it’s cheapest. Farmers who make and sell more hay than they feed are well aware of the price fluctuations and are content to move hay to a central location to store it until the price moves upward, usually in mid- to late winter.
When you buy bales now, you can move them directly to your winter bale grazing site, and pre-position the bales. You want to move bales as few times as possible. In addition to costing time and fuel, each time a hay bale is moved, its quality degrades. Lifting the bale loosens the strings or wrapping, opening the bale up to taking on more moisture and increasing the likelihood it may fall apart during subsequent moves. Introducing a “hole” in the bale with the bale fork has an additive effect on bale degradation. Finally, the lightweight “fines” in the bale, particles which are typically high in protein and other nutrients shake loose each time a bale is moved, leaving the bale in lower condition, and wasting precious nutrients that could benefit your animals and soil.

Moving hay in the summer is always preferred to moving it in the winter. Why not include in the purchase price of the hay that the seller transports and moves it to the intended bale grazing site and pre-positions the bales? At the right price, the hay seller should be happy to remove the hay from the storage yard or field borders in June or July, rather than risk cold temperatures and snow to move hay in December or January.

Strings or wrapping should be left on to keep bales in good shape and allow for moving them again in an emergency. These can be removed in November or December just ahead of the bale grazing season, but before snow and ice make the job more challenging. It’s also much easier to remove wrappings without animals present, especially if you have to keep a wary eye on your bull.

Bale Rings

Large bale rings have been used for years to contain hay coming off round bales so it doesn’t get “wasted.” Winter bale grazing operates on the premise that spent hay litter has value, and should not be confined to a bale ring, but rather should be spread about. Cattle eat through a bale selectively, and will do a wonderful job of distributing hay litter as they rummage through what is left behind after the core of the bale is consumed.

Depending on the size and grade of the bale ring, moving it can be difficult by hand and a potential safety issue. Often, a tractor is needed to lift bale rings that are packed in with snow, ice and hay litter. The one use we’ve found for hay rings is when we occasionally feed small square bales. Small squares are much more easily turned into bedding, and if there is any wind when feeding, can be spread too far too fast, resulting in scattered hay which just doesn’t get eaten.

John Mesko owns Lighthouse Farm, a grass-fed beef operation in Central Minnesota, and is the executive director of MOSES.

From the July | August 2017 Issue

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