I started bale grazing many years ago more out of necessity than anything else. I had to feed my cattle but I worked long hours, six days a week. There was not a lot of time to be feeding cattle and I dislike feeding in the dark. Over the years I have adapted and experimented with quite a few different methods of bale grazing. Even though I do not work out anymore, I still like to keep my labour to a minimum. It just makes sense.
The key to bale grazing is in reducing yardage costs associated with the act of feeding. Yardage is the labour and equipment costs, which does not include the cost of the feed. There might also be a transportation cost included in the hay cost. An example of this might be that your hay costs you 90 cents/head/day, your transportation cost was 15 cents/head/day and your yardage 50 cents/head/day for a total cost of $1.55/head/day.
The price of your feed is set by market value in your area. You might be good at negotiating the price for hay or have good contacts that are close by, but in general, you don’t control the price of your feed. Even if you make your own, it is still the same cost as any other hay of the same quality. (Maybe it cost you more or less to produce but the market sets the selling price.)
Arbitrage is also a factor in your hay price. It is the equalization of a commodity from one market to another due to transportation cost. This might cause your hay costs to rise if there is a shortage in another farming area. Last spring the hay in my area was jumping due to a shortage of feed three provinces away in Ontario. Trucks were hauling hay from Alberta out to Ontario and we could not find hay to buy.
So I have limited control on the cost of my hay and transportation to deliver that hay. The only thing I have left that I can control is yardage, which I find funny because I have always been taught that yardage is a fixed cost and that my feed and transportation costs are variable. In fact, I can control my yardage costs. Don’t let anyone tell you they are fixed. I can get my yardage costs down to less than 10 cents/head/day with bale grazing. I have seen farms with yardage costs above $2/head/day.
Each year is different and I tend to adjust on the fly quite a bit. Some people talk about having a plan B. My manager and I used to joke about being on plan G or maybe on to plan W. With custom grazing, custom swath grazing or custom feeding, it is easy to have a different scenario every year. Each winter I might have a different number of animals, a different method of feeding or even a different type or class of livestock. Is it dormant-season grazing, swath grazing or bale grazing? Is it cows or yearlings or horses? I might know well in advance in order for me to set things up just right or I might not know until later into the winter and have to go to plan Q.
Basically I am down to three main methods of bale grazing. The first one is Plan A. I have plenty of notice and the hay is bought and delivered in the fall. I have the hay delivered right out to the pasture. I then spread the bales out across the field in checkerboard fashion. Once the bales are placed in the fall, the long, boring, tedious job of removing the twine or net wrapping begins. The bales are set, twine removed, now we simply play leapfrog with a couple of electric fences all winter. It gets a little tougher in winter to keep the fence hot enough. I do have five tips to keeping your electric fence hot in the winter, but that’s a different article. I have had my yardage cost under 10 cents/head/day with plan A.
Plan B, if you have the opportunity, can be very economical as well. With plan B I did not get enough notice to set up the bale grazing in advance for one reason or another. There is already snow on the ground and the twines are probably already frozen to the bale. In this method of bale grazing I am buying hay off of a nearby neighbour. I have negotiated the delivery into the purchase price so the hay supplier is also delivering the hay to me. Because of my summer grazing management, I already have a number of grazing paddocks set up in my fields. I now get my hay supplier to deliver one load to each paddock. In this scenario I will have him place the bales on end so that I can remove the twine easier. Once I remove all the twine, I simply graze one paddock at a time. I usually have the supplier deliver once a month at his convenience. As long as I don’t run out, he can deliver whenever he gets a free day. If you noticed, I never touched a bale with a piece of equipment in this scenario. Yet, I paid the same delivery charge that I would have by hiring a semi to deliver the hay. I have had my yardage below 5 cents/head/day with this method.
I may run into an issue with delivery if the snow gets too deep. I also cannot always find hay close by from a producer with the ability to deliver in the snow. I have had this method turn out to be more economical at times, but I still do not like pulling twine off frozen bales.
Plan C is a last resort when I get offered animals to custom feed last minute or maybe I have pasture cattle arrive early in the spring. When the snow is too deep to get out into the fields, I need to hire a snowplow to get the hay in and maybe to plow a path out into the paddocks I will feed in. I only have a bale truck so I am limited to the depth of snow I can get through. I want the hay close to the feeding pastures. I might place the hay in a paddock right near a gate into a couple of other paddocks. I then simply feed hay to the animals with two differences from traditional feeding. First I always feed in the pasture on a new spot to spread the manure and residue around. Second, I set out a week or more worth of feed at a time.
More from the Canadian Cattlemen website: Bale grazing on the Niagara Escarpment
I might use two or three different paddocks and then graze each paddock separately. The downside to this method is it involves more equipment and frozen twine. Yardage costs go up so my margin decreases. This is still much more economical than feeding every day in a corral with the added bonus of having no manure to haul later.
In the end, it is the yardage cost that I can control. As a custom operator, this is where I make my profit. Even if you own your own animals and make your own hay, the economics are still the same. You still have labour and equipment costs. The key to bale grazing is to lower your yardage. The lower your yardage, the better your margin. Best wishes! c