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Bale-Grazing Basics

I would like to give a special thanks to all those who put on the Western Canadian Grazing Conference in Vermilion last month. It was a great show that was enjoyed by all. It was also a great opportunity for networking and I would like to give my very best wishes to all of you who follow my articles and who took the time to share your appreciation with me at the conference. It is an honour for me to have this opportunity to write down my experiences and share them with you. Your kind words are very much appreciated.

I also discovered from my discussions that there are still a lot of producers out there looking for information about bale grazing. If this is a new term to you, bale grazing is a method of feeding harvested feed but with one difference. It drastically reduces the labour and equipment costs associated with traditional winter feeding. To set up my bale grazing system this year, I spread my whole winter’s supply of 750 bales out in a 25-acre paddock. Here is a quick rundown of my bale grazing basics.

I am custom feeding 366 bred heifers this winter. It takes me about two hours per week to feed. The rest of the time I am free to partake in any number of tasks that are sure to be much more enjoyable than feeding cows. Just to clarify, as a custom operator, the feed is my customer cost and I only charge them a yardage rate to cover the labour and equipment costs associated with the act of feeding. This is, however, no different than if you own your own cows. The savings in bale grazing comes from the yardage. The price of feed is still the market value each year.

The key to bale grazing is to have the hay delivered right to the pasture. The more times you need to handle feed, the more costly it is. All of my hay was delivered this year either by a self-loading/unloading truck or with a tractor and a wagon. The self-unloading truck is handy as the driver spreads the bales across the field for me by simply running his chains without tipping his deck. This dumps three bales off every 50 feet or so. I then just have to go out with my bale truck and tip them over and spread them apart a bit.

I also have a neighbour who sells me hay and delivers it with his tractor and hay wagon. Again he unloads them out in my pasture but with this method, I never have to move the bales as he places them in nice straight rows for me all across the field. This year, I spent about five hours out in the field with my bale truck flipping bales over and spreading them.

Then comes the long, boring, monotonous job of cutting twine. Normally, my bales show up with plastic twine and I set out on my journey to pull the twine off all 750 bales. The labour-saving part of this step comes from the fact that all the twine is pulled off in the fall before the twine gets frozen down. I have slowed down a bit over the last few years as I use to pull twine at 42 bales an hour. I timed myself again this year and I could only hit 38 bales an hour. This took me about 20 hours of labour. If I can find sisal twine, this part is easy as I do not bother to cut it as the twine will rot in the spring. Using net-wrapped bales is a hassle as I need to cut the net wrapping before I flip them over and sometimes this can be messy.

With both net wrapping and plastic twine, I feel that removing the twine and disposing of it properly is important. For those of you who leave the twine on for bale grazing, I have some words of wisdom for you from my eight-year-old daughter. “That would hurt Mother Nature, and you work for Mother Nature, don’t you Daddy?” I could not have described my job better myself.

Once the bales are placed and the twine removed, the only thing left to do is to feed them. To ration out these bales, I now play leapfrog with a couple of electric fences all the way down the field.

Ideally, I like to strip graze down a long, narrow, rectangular paddock but this year it happens to be set up on a pie-shaped paddock. Including a 10 per cent waste, a 1,000-pound bred heifer will require about 28 pounds of hay or about 10,248 lb./day for all 366 head. I will of course be increasing this ration throughout the winter to adjust for weather, growth and month of pregnancy.

I like to use a four-day graze period. I feel the balance between labour, animal nutrition and feed “waste” is optimal. Of course, this is not really “waste.” This means I need 40,992 pounds of feed or about 29 bales per move. (1,400 lbs. each) I don’t always have the right number of bales in a row so I might move a little earlier or a little later depending on how well they have cleaned up.

I am a little more forgiving with bred heifers than I am with cows as quite often on the last day of the graze period, I might unroll one or two more bales to give them a bit extra so I can force them to clean up. I still however, try to stick to my calculated ration per head per day.

By unrolling the extra bales, I will hold them an extra half-day or more to clean up. With mature cows, I usually skip this step. I calculate out my ration after each move to see the lb./hd./day rate. Now this step usually takes me about a half-hour each time to move a fence and we add in another half-hour on the day I unroll a bale. That totals about two hours per week. Don’t forget that with mature cows, the unrolling step is skipped so the time would only be one hour per week.

That’s it, a couple of hours each week to feed 366 head. Shall we add this up? My yardage cost would add up as follows: Placing bales took me five hours with my truck at $65/ hour. Pulling twine took me 20 hours at $65/hour. (I will include my truck out there even though it was parked while I worked.) Moving wire and unrolling a few bales will take me about two hours per week for 20 weeks at $65/hour. (Total so far of $325 + $1,300 + $2,600 = $4,225.) This $4,225 worth of equipment and labour costs are spread across 366 animals over 140 days of feeding to work out to 8.2 cents/head/day in yardage costs.

For the sake of argument, we can add in another five cents/head/day to cover operational overheads such as water and facilities. Most of this however, I know is already covered by using the hourly rate on my truck. I use no bedding and most of the other costs associated with wintering cattle are applied against the cow-calf profit centre.

So could you live with a yardage cost of 13.2 cents/head/ day? The last time I heard the average Alberta yardage rate for cattle producers was 70 cents/head/day. That does not include the cost of the feed, just yardage.

The reason I bale graze is to save yardage costs, but in addition to reducing the cost of yardage, I receive a tremendous amount of fertilizer in the process. I value every day that I feed a dry cow on my property with purchased feed at 30 cents/head/day in fertilizer.

The manure, residue and urine left behind can easily double your production on a paddock. To prove this, you are all invited to my pasture walk next summer to see for yourself the amazing growth on my fields following a bale grazing winter. So, if I am correct with this fertilizer value, I get 30 cents’ worth of fertilizer for every 13.2 cents I spend.

Hmmm… seems like a no-brainer to me. Next month I will describe to you a few little tricks I use when setting up and managing a bale grazing site to keep my headaches to a minimum.

SteveKenyonrunsGreenerPasturesRanchingLtd.inBusby,

Alta., www.greenerpasturesranching.com, 780-307-6500,email

[email protected]

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Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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