A gross margin analysis will tell you the profitability of your different profit centres on your farm. My decision to choose one production practice over another is largely decided by the margin I calculate. It is, however, very important to include current market values in your calculations. Last year’s hay prices in my area are much different than this year’s. We were paying 10 cents a pound last year for good hay and this year we are down to four. So the margins can be quite different year to year.
Bale grazing did not pencil last year so I needed to find a less expensive feed.
I took a higher risk last fall and fenced off three quarters of pea straw residue from a local grain farmer and planned to graze well into winter hoping the snow would not get too deep. We were fortunate to have a very mild winter here in Alberta so the crop residue grazing was a success.
This year is again a different story. I do have one crop quarter that we will be grazing in early winter but then we will be heading back to the bale grazing till spring. It is by far a less risky method of feeding.
What is bale grazing? It is a method of feeding harvested feed but with one unique difference: You are using a grazing mentality.
The reason I bale graze is to save money. I can reduce the cost of yardage substantially and, as a bonus, receive a whole bunch of fertilizer in the process. When you have to feed, to me, bale grazing is a no-brainer!
There are a few ways to bale graze but the key to each method is to reduce the labour and equipment usage. I can feed 350 head of dry cows all winter long with a half hour of labour per week. The key to this system is to never have the feed stacked in the hay yard. I have the hay delivered to the pasture where it is grazed. Try not to handle each bale more than once if possible. Every time you handle feed, it costs you money. I am a big fan of self-unloading trucks as it saves me time and handling costs.
There are a few different ways to set up a bale-grazing field. Usually I place the winter’s supply of hay out in a rectangular pasture in the fall. I calculate for the number of cows and the pounds per day and the number of days required. The bales are placed in rows on their side. The twine is removed in the fall! Much easier and faster than pulling twine in the winter. I then ration off a four- or five-day supply of feed using an electric wire.
I use two portable electric fences and leapfrog down the paddock all winter. Very minimal labour and equipment costs all winter long.
I have also bale grazed by having it delivered monthly throughout the winter. In this scenario, I have purchased hay from a local producer who is willing to deliver the hay with his own tractor and wagon. Obviously he has to be close by. I pay him to deliver it but instead of stacking it in a hay yard, he unloads it in my pasture for me in different paddocks. All my pastures already have numerous paddocks already built.
With this method, I never touch the bales with equipment. I usually get him to place a five-day supply of bales in each paddock on end. They are placed on end because in the winter, the twines are a bit easier to pull when frozen with ice than if they were placed normally on the side.
When I am down to my last paddock, I give the supplier a bit of notice and he can spend a day and fill up the paddocks again. I’ll just get him to place the bales in a different spot each time to spread out the fertility. If you need to put two or three sets of bales out in the same paddock, which works too, just move a temporary wire between them to help ration them off.
I’m sure there are many other ways to make bale grazing work; these are just a couple of examples to get you thinking about it.
I like a four- to five-day graze period when I bale graze. I feel the balance between labour, animal nutrition and feed waste is optimal.
Labour is minimal as I feed twice a week and it takes about a half hour. Nutritionally, I find that I rarely have any “skinnies” show up because for the first four days, everyone eats well. On the last day, everyone cleans up. If you limit ration daily, the boss cow always gets more than her share and the less aggressive cow always gets less.
If you plan for a five-day ration, try not to fall for the “brown-eyed syndrome” and move them early. It will cost you if you weaken!
If it helps your sympathetic side, ration out just less than five days worth of feed, and on the fifth day, unroll the remaining bales to give each cow a portion of higher-quality feed. This will help them clean up the bale grazing a bit better. However, it will also increase your yardage costs.
Now, don’t get me wrong, if the temperature drops and the cattle need to have their ration increased because of the cold, move them early to compensate. Just keep track of your daily rations so you don’t overfeed and run your costs up.
I bale graze to lower my labour and equipment costs. The bonus is the fertility. The following year the pasture is completely rejuvenated by all the extra water-holding capacity and added nutrients by the residue that is worked into the soil by the cattle.
It is incredible how fast you can improve a pasture by bale grazing on it. In my experience this increased fertility continues for at least five years or more. I love to bale graze!