Letting cows feed themselves during winter reduces feed costs. A lot of time and expense can be saved if you don t have to haul feed in from the fields and then haul it back out to the cows. Bale grazing provides economic and environmental advantages over traditional confinement feeding.
Lorne Klein, grazing and forage specialist with Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, says a few people were doing it 30 years ago but may have been thought poor managers leaving bales out in the field for cows to eat. Over the past 30 years, but especially the last 10 years, some people began to realize the benefits of this method. Several things came together to make it more feasible. First was portable windbreaks, so cattle could be grazed in fields without shelter. Second was use of electric fence, to control cows access to the bales. Third was realization that snow can be used as a water source, explains Klein. This enabled stockmen to utilize fields that had no water.
NECESSITY PROMPTED BALE GRAZING
Brian Ross and his wife Rosalie run 700 cows in southeastern Saskatchewan. They began bale grazing after BSE, when the cattle market plummeted. Up to that point, we thought we were doing things as efficiently as we could. But when that happened, we had to scramble we had to get more efficient or get out of the cattle business, he says.
The price of hay has usually been fairly reasonable. The costs that keep going up are equipment and fuel. It was harder and harder to make ends meet. So we focused on ways to save on equipment and fuel. When we analyzed it, bringing hay in and stacking it, and hauling it out during winter starting a tractor every day our costs were about $10 per bale, says Ross.
In 2004, when we started bale grazing, we hauled bales to the cows to feed them for a week at a time. Now we don t move bales off the hayfield, except on our rented land. We leave them where we make them, and move the cows to the bales during winter. Our cows are in three bunches. We turn the groups of cows into enough bales to last about 30 days. Even with just Rosalie and I looking after the cattle, our winters are easier. We have time to do a lot of other things.
Unlike most ranchers who bale graze, Ross doesn t use electric fence. He just turns a group of cows into the whole field. I start with fields closest to my water source. They graze those bales for about 30 days, then we let them into the next field. Toward the end of that period we make them start to clean up that hay. You need an estimated end time on each group, or your waste can become too much.
Depending upon how cold the weather is, cattle may eat the bales quicker or slower. The weather determines how much you make them clean up. You have to keep monitoring the cows and hay. But when it comes time to move them we just open a gate and chase them into the next 30 days worth of feed, Ross says.
He s done this for five winters. We ve gone through some good winters, and some hard winters. Snow isn t a factor; cattle tend to clean up the bales they re working on before going to new ones, tramping through the deep snow.
He has an old bale processor but it s parked in the trees. We don t need it now, and it costs too much to run. Any time you can get away from using equipment and fuel, it saves time and money letting the cows do more of the work. They have the time to do it, says Ross.
But after doing bale grazing, I think our biggest advantage is the fertilizer benefit on our hay land. It takes a couple of years to kick into effect, with residue from the bale grazing, but now those fields are producing more than they ve ever produced in my lifetime. He is making more hay, with no fertilizer costs.
If it hadn t been for BSE and tough times, we never would have tried this. But along with it we ve gone to later calving. We don t start calving until mid-May and don t wean calves until March. They winter with the cows on bale grazing. We stick creep feeders out there if it s a tough winter like last winter and calves do well, says Ross.
The calves are not stressed, being with their mothers, and come through winter with no health problems. The health issue on the calves is a real benefit. I haven t given a shot of antibiotic in the winter for a long time, he says. He markets the calves as yearlings after a summer on grass.
During winter the cows often use snow as a water source, but Ross makes sure they have water especially since he started leaving calves on the cows. I felt they should have water, even though I m not sure they need it. After the pairs are in fields a half mile or more from the water source, we see them licking snow. They often prefer to lick snow, rather than walk to water, but the water is there if they want it.
The biggest change, regarding our haying, is that we went to a net-wrapped bale. It makes the cows work a littler harder to start on a bale. They have to eat in from the butt ends, rather than the sides. They don t waste as much hay, and have a tendency to clean up a bale before they go on to the next one, because they know they have some tough pulling ahead of them to get it going, explains Ross.
There s also less trouble with the net wrap than with bale twine. We gather up the net wrap in the spring, he says.
MANY WAYS TO DO IT
Pablo Pareja came from Colombia a few years ago to work for Paul Meunier and Sons Farm at Barrhead, Alberta. They run a feedlot but also have a cow-calf operation. They ve been doing bale grazing for five years. Last winter they had 1,100 cows bale grazing and the rest in swath grazing or fed silage, says Pareja.
His job is taking care of the cattle in winter, doing the feeding. Most of the bales are brought from other fields to the bale grazing field. Usually we split the paddocks in long narrow rectangles to make it easy to move the electric fence. The cows have access to a three day supply of hay about 35 pounds per head per day, but we increase it about 30 per cent if the weather is below minus 20 or the hay is poor quality, he explains.
We use twine and net wrap. It s a bit of work to get it off the bales before we let the cows in, but if you do it in the fall before it s frozen (and keep in mind how easy it will be to feed the cows in winter!) it s not too bad. With the net wrap, we cut it close to the ground, then flip it up over the bale. Once you have all the bales cut, one person with a loader lifts the bale and the other person pulls the net wrap, says Pareja.
The big advantage is the labour and cost saved for winter feeding with no equipment, no manure spreading, etc. Another advantage is how it improves the soil dramatically. The disadvantage is that this system is competitive for the cows, making them clean up the bales so you need to have the right kind of cows. He does not recommend bale grazing for cows in late pregnancy because they may lie in the holes they make after cleaning up hay where the ground wasn t frozen and may not be able to get up and bloat.
Steve Kenyon, near Busby, Alta., has been bale grazing for 13 years. He has his own mobile grazing school and helped set up the bale grazing method for the Meunier operation.
When Pablo first arrived from Colombia, he had never experienced winter feeding. I taught him how to bale graze when he went to work for this ranch, and they were bale grazing 1,200 cows. They bought another 150 cows and put them in a separate area. It was already winter, and they wanted to get the new cows fence-trained before they turned them in with the other cows. The new cows weren t accustomed to electric fence, and were breaking through it to get to the bales. The ranch managers saw it wasn t working and decided that until they got those cows trained, they would just feed them.
Pablo s job was to bale graze the 1,200 head and take the bale buster out to feed the small group. He told me it was taking him more time to feed the 150 cows than the 1,200 cows. He couldn t understand why anyone would ever haul feed to cows. He d never seen it done either way and it made a lot more sense to him to bale graze, says Kenyon.