Triple Creek Journal: Bale Grazing compliments Hay Unrolling during winter feeding

January, 2023. 

The dominant forages in our forage system include tall fescue, dallisgrass, crabgrass, red clover and white clover.  There are many other minor species but those five account for a pretty high percentage of the biomass production.  Twenty years ago we had very heavy tall fescue stands, and as a result we usually had very high yields in stockpiled pasture.  At that time we realized many of our problems with tall fescue were because we did spring fertilization.  We went to only putting fertilizer out in the late summer.  We still had very strong stockpiles for winter grazing, and in spring we had a whole lot more clover, and also more warm-season species during the summer.  It helped reduce fescue toxicosis.  Overtime the system has evolved to contain less and less tall fescue, and many new species of summer grasses like purple top are on the increase.  Lately, we have also been primarily depending on nutrients from imported hay to grow grass, which further favors warm-season species.

Because of high rainfall over the last 4 winters, we have had even more damage to the fescue stands across the farm which has allowed even more warm-season species to come in, especially crabgrass.  All these changes have occurred because we did everything we could along to way to discourage tall fescue and to favor these other species.  It is one way you can learn to live with the fescue toxins but it has disadvantages.

One consequence of the changes in our pastures is that we grow less grass in the fall.  This is partially due to low rainfall in recent years, but it is also because of the warm season plants there competing with the tall fescue.  In the past several years we have been feeding some groups all the way through the winter on pasture, but the main herd has been fed hay for about 90 days.  Our goal is 65 days in line with the 300 Days Grazing program in Virginia.  I really don’t mind feeding hay that much, but when the winter is long, it is hard on the land and on the people doing the feeding.  As I have been feeding this winter I have been thinking about how to get a better distribution of growth so we have some of those “big stockpiles” again. 

After we finish frontal grazing all the pastures with the mature cow herd we use a flatbed dump truck to take out round bales and unroll them down hills.  If you get them going the right direction it is a pretty easy system. You can’t unroll more than what they will eat in one day, so sometimes that is inconvenient but it is just something you have to live with.  We rotate the cows through the pastures and try to impact as much of the area as possible.   We purchased a “Hay-B-Gone” round bale mover and unroller last year, which we pull with a Suzuki Sidekick.  It has helped us unroll in the corners and on flatter ground where we had never unrolled before.  I really like this system, but there are times when it is too wet to get on pastures with the flatbed, and when feeding waste can be very high.  In these situations 15 years ago we would move the cows to a field where we can easily put out hay trailers. That has only happened once in the last 5 years.  Now, we use the Suzuki to take one bale at a time back to the cows and put them in areas that can really benefit from the impact.  The wasted hay is food for our soil biology.

Recently we have been experimenting with Bale Grazing.  This involves setting out many bales of hay in a grid fashion in a pasture, and then using electric wire to ration them off to the cows.  I first learned about bale grazing when I reviewed a research paper from Saskatchewan, Canada about 15 years ago. There, hay was placed at a high density (6 tons/acre), and while there was a concentrated amount of nutrients wherever there was a bale, it was much better than when a central feeding location was used.  As a devout “hay unroller”, I was a bit skeptical when it was proposed that bale grazing is something we might also do in the eastern US.   It is one thing to concentrate cows on a frozen surface in Canada, but in the humid eastern USA?

Dr. Greg Halich, Ag Economist at the University of Kentucky, began working with bale grazing with cattle he was finishing for the grass-fed market.  He didn’t own a tractor, but could get the neighbor he was buying hay from to deliver it to various areas of pasture across the farm in the fall.  He rationed it out with polywire and moved rings when necessary.  After a few year, and dramatic improvements in the productivity of the farms he was grazing he started working with other producers in Kentucky and other states, and a lot was learned.  Now he will lead a 5 year project to implement bale grazing demonstrations in 6 states.

Because of the amount of talk about bale grazing we went ahead and tried it for the first time in the winter of 20-21.  We put out 35 bales at a density of about 3 tons per acre for our yearling steers.  The pasture we used, “The Horse Pasture”, sits right down a hill behind the barn.  It has low fertility due to decades of neglect and could benefit from the animal impact.  It also is a pasture that is not very accessible in the wintertime due to the way it lays and the soil type, so winter feeding there in the past has turned into a major mess of mud because of the difficulty of getting in and out with a tractor.  With bale grazing we were able to put the hay out in the fall when the ground was dry, and we grazed the large group of yearlings there for about 45 days.  There was a lot of tredding damage and mud, but it was no where near the problem it was in previous winters when we ran the tractor in and out of there.

The second winter (last winter) we decided to try bale grazing in one of our front fields that is near the barn and has medium to low fertility (the Bull Pasture).  Since the bulls would be out of there from January 5 to March 20 we could feed our replacement heifers there during that time.  We put out enough hay for 42 days, and supplemented them with cottonseed under the lead electric fence.  This worked out great.  One of the biggest advantages at that time was that whenever I had to be out of town that group was especially easy for my neighbor to take care of.  This field is beside a major highway, and the neighbors thought it was the craziest thing they had seen in a while!

This year we are again using bale grazing for our replacement heifers.  We needed them near the barn for synchronization and breeding, so we set up a set of bales to carry them for 42 days in a bermudagrass/crabgrass pasture adjacent to the barn.  This field has always been used for a winter feeding pasture, and it was always really muddy because of the tractor traffic.  We seed it down with Quick-N-Big Crabgrass in the spring and it grows more grass than you might believe every summer and fall.   We are about half way through the bales with this group.  We had a real easy time getting them bred, and once done with this pasture they will move to the Bull Pasture were we have again placed some bales. 

We also have our 2-yr old cows with calves bale grazing in the Horse Pasture this year.  After a year off, this pasture grew out pretty good.   Given it still has very low fertility status we again set out about 3 tons per acre. Most of the area has a lot of annual ryegrass, so the calves are creep grazing over the entire area.  These cows and calves are in good condition and thriving despite this being a very wet and muddy pasture.

By March 1 we expect both of these groups to go onto ryegrass and oats.  Past experience shows that the replacement heifers will gain about 2.5 lbs/day from March through June with this system, finishing their development really nicely with no supplementation other than mineral.  The first-calf heifers slick off and milk like crazy, and end up outperforming the mature cows on the weaning weights of their calves, again without supplementation.  If you have never seen any of your cattle where they have been off toxic tall fescue for a long time it is really amazing.  In May these young cows might be seen with shiny hair coats, grazing in the middle of the day out in the sun at 90 degrees.  At the same time, the older cows are shaggy and wallowed up in a mud hole.  Again, if you have never seen your cattle on toxic tall fescue or a non-toxic forage in the middle of May, it will really make an impression on you

I am liking bale grazing in general, and think it has a place on our farm, but I still like unrolling when every possible.  As we move into the New Year we are doing our best to start working for as early as possible a start to the grazing season this year, and more stockpile grazing next year with less hay feeding in general.  We have several fields that have been out of toxic KY31 tall fescue for several years now, and they will be planted back to novel endophyte tall fescue varieties in September.  Once those are established we can manage them to be a high percentage of tall fescue so we can be back to stockpiling. 

If you are not satisfied with your forage system, start by evaluating the stands in each field, and picking about 10% of your acreage for renovation.  Many of us could benefit from renovating 10% of acres each year.  Bale grazing is a great renovation tool which can be added to it’s many merits.  As you study for your species selection, remember there are many options including Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue, Native Warm-Season Grasses, standard warm season grasses (bermudagrass and bahiagrass), or perennial mixtures that may have a place on your farm.  The best time to start revitalizing your forage system is now!

~ Matt Poore, NC State


The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org

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