I still receive this comment quite often when I speak about bale grazing. Our industry is hung up on being efficient. We don’t want to waste anything. I know we have all been trained to target 97 per cent efficiency in everything we do. But I would rather be effective. Most of our efficiencies come from looking at only one piece of the puzzle. If we look at the whole picture, we might lose efficiency on one point but gain effectiveness on the whole.
Bale grazing is a good example. If we only look at feed waste by weight, yes, it might not be the most efficient. We may have more pounds of feed wasted on the ground than other methods of feeding hay. But let’s look at the whole system.
When I bale graze, I have noticed the waste is mostly stems. If managed right, cattle do a pretty good job cleaning up all the leaves and higher-quality parts of the plants. A higher percentage by weight might be left but not by quality. Unrolling or shredding bales will cause a higher loss in the leaves and finer particles from the hay. I would argue, from my experience, that the losses in quality are actually lower when bale grazing.
The savings in labour and equipment with bale grazing are better.
I’ve been bale grazing since 1999 and my goal has been to figure out how to reduce my yardage costs. Most of the work is done in the fall when the weather is much more co-operative. Then in the winter, there is very little work to do. Overall, I use less labour. I consider yardage to be the labour and equipment costs needed to get the feed to the animals. It does not include the cost of the feed.
Yardage is normally quite a complicated calculation because a lot of your business overhead costs should be included, but I like to simplify things. I charge out my equipment at a reasonable hourly rate of $85/hour. That should cover all of the fuel, repairs, labour, depreciation and opportunity costs associated with the machines. According to provincial statistics, the average yardage on an Alberta farm is about 70 cents per cow per day. I am usually under 10 cents per cow per day with bale grazing. That is a 60 cent per head per day saving. If this example is the norm, then I can waste up to 59 cents per head per day in feed on the ground and still be economically ahead.
One of the big benefits most people use to promote bale grazing is all of the added fertility it provides to the soil. If I remember correctly, a study some years ago found that for every ton of hay that went into a cow, there was about $15 in N, K, P and S that came out the back end. With inflation, I’m sure that number is higher today. You might be able to get this same amount of fertility on the land by hauling the manure on, but I would argue that you lose the economic value of the manure because it will probably cost you just about the same amount in labour and equipment to haul it as you would gain from the fertility. With bale grazing your cows do the work for you.
I am honestly not all that concerned about the added fertility that bale grazing provides because those nutrients will be used up and gone in a year or two anyway.
The big benefit I’m after is the added water holding capacity. Water is the most important nutrient by far. If a crop requires 50 pounds of nitrogen to grow X amount of forage, it will also need about 10,000 pounds of water. Which nutrient is more important? We need to be managing for water.
That extra residue from bale grazing is a blessing to your soil because it will improve your water cycle. It helps reduce run-off and helps your soil hold onto more water. Trash on the surface will also reduce evaporation so your soil won’t lose the moisture as quickly. If you have water, then the rest of the system can work properly. Water will help you establish a polyculture of plants, which will provide a polyculture of roots, which will provide a polyculture of soil life. This added soil life is where all the free fertility starts to add up.
If there is anything you should be managing on your farm, it is improved water holding capacity of your soil.
There is no such thing as wasted feed as long as it is wasted in the right place. Pasture production will double or triple or more over the next five to 10 years with added water holding capacity.
When you add it all up, bale grazing is a no-brainer. It is a much more effective way to feed livestock.
Of course, like any other skill, you need to practice it to get good at it. It might work well in your environment or it might not. You may need to adapt it to your environment or adjust it to suit your farm, but the principles behind it make a lot of economic sense. If you are just looking at waste, you are missing the real value in bale grazing.
We just need to learn how to waste a little, to gain a lot!